Monday, November 7, 2011

I've done software testing, so why not test patterns and readability with craft books...

Cool variation on stripey socks
Sock Yarn One-Skein Wonders: 101 Patterns That Go Way Beyond Socks edited by Judith Durant

The About: Third in the series of One-Skein Wonders, this book makes use of stashes of sock yarn that knitters love to hoard. Patterns are divided into mittens and gloves, shrugs and scarves, socks, baby clothes and random accessories. Each pattern is designed to use just one skein of sock yarn specified.

Thoughts: Being one of them hoarders of sock yarn and a very... frugal person, nothing delights me more than the idea of completing a project with one skein only. The problem with many socks I have made is that most, if not all of them, require about 1.2 skeins of yarn, and then I'm left with just not enough for another pair of socks--grr!

This book has cute but easy patterns from straight-forward knitting to lacy creations. In contrast to some other knitting books, the instructions here are easy and leave no room for ambiguity.

I ended up making two pairs of socks using one of the sock patterns that was easy to memorize and looked great, and as I followed each step by the word, I managed to make a pair of socks without any problems or needing to stop to scratch my head.

The only downside to my eagerness in knitting these was that I did not check what size this one skein was supposed to be, and so my first pair ended up using again about 1.2 skeins of yarn--which is why the first pair has non-matching toes...

There are patterns in this book where I'm thinking, "OK, so you can make a skein as big as you want--can you still call it just one skein pattern?" Most of the sock yarn skeins I have are less than 300 yards each, whereas most of the patterns in this book require skeins in sizes somewhere between 300-500 yards. I wish the introduction already had stated that most of the yarns here are high-quality, indie-made hand-spun sock yarns and not the kind that you can buy off Jo-Ann shelves.

Despite that, this is an extremely useful book for learning quick projects to be made out of a fairly small amount of sock yarn. Because instructions are written extremely clearly and are accompanied by illustrations you can't go wrong buying this book. Next I'll try out some of the scarves...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Painful images

36. In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman

The About: This collection is a set of one-page comics that deal with Art Spiegelman trying to come to terms with the destruction of the Twin Towers in his city, all the while growing angrier at how the then-administration took advantage of the raw feelings people felt after the attacks. His art goes from obsessive reproductions of the burning skeleton of the second tower to scathing political commentary, none of which leave the reader cold.

Thoughts: I was not in the country on 9/11. Yet I remember being incredibly shocked watching the live footage on TV. I cannot quite grasp the extent to which 9/11 affected people here personally, although intellectually I can understand it. Art Spiegelman's collection is a concise look into how people in New York, specifically Manhattan, felt during and after the Twin Tower attacks. The images burned into his brain are not the ones from newspaper front pages known all over the world; instead, he remembers kids high-fiving inappropriately, or someone painting the burning towers on a canvas on the street. And then there is the image that repeats and repeats: the glowing foundation structure of the tower, ready to collapse, which looms over everything Spiegelman is attempting to create.

This is Spiegelman's personal hurt and anger collected into one volume. Strangely enough, I can imagine this very personal account to ring true for many of his countrymen and women.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

When the personal is public

35. Warriors Don't Cry. The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals

The About: Beals was one of the nine black children to first attempt integration at a white high chool after the integration ruling in 1958. In her memoir, Beals goes back in time to the shoes of her teenager self to reflect on how stupendously close she got to losing her life, almost daily, simply due to ignorance and hatred.

Thoughts: Some autobiographies written by non-writers can be absolutely terrible because they cannot let go of a single detail, but Warriors Don't Cry has a fresh outlook on an extremely historical event. Each sentence stresses that Melba is like any other teenager who worries about boys, doesn't quite understand why she can't go to the community center in the evening to hang out with her friends (because an angry white mob would kill her, that's why) or who accidentally has a big mouth and tells the reporters something she maybe shouldn't have.

Because of how incredibly normal she is, it is especially hard to grasp that grown white women would break through barriers and run after her, genuinely wanting to kill her just for attending the same school as their kids, or how a boy would throw acid in her eyes in the middle of the school halls, and the head master wouldn't do a thing because the only adult witnessing the situation was a soldier who was hired as Melba's bodyguard. Perhaps the most sickening part of the story is--if the constant physical abuse during each school day isn't enough for the reader--the conversation Melba overhears in the teachers' lounge when the protesting crowd outside is ready to break in to the school: they actually contemplate for a moment about sacrificing one of the black kids to the crowd (to be hanged!) in order to get the others out alive.

I don't even understand how she stayed mentally sane. Imagine going to school every day, where other kids would kick you, hit you and try to burn you alive--and the school staff thinks that you actually deserve this treatment. A year of that? Incredible.

This was 1958. Not that long ago. That's perhaps the scariest thought while reading this book.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Back to school, back to school... prove my clients that I ain't no fool...

Apologies for the lack of updates: in addition to my usual and unusual work, I started my certificate program a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly my reading material has become fairly limited in scope...

34. The Subversive Copyeditor by Carol Fisher Saller

The About: Inspired by questions sent to her about editing at Chicago Manual of Style, Saller wrote a book that addresses the most burning questions she receives from the point of view on how to do a good job as an editor. Sections include how to cover your tail but also how to own up to mistakes, how to build a good relationship with an author and how to recognize your skills and short comings.

Thoughts: Let me start by saying that this was not required reading for the class. I just happened upon it in the book store, and it looked interesting so I grabbed it. I'm glad I did, because for such a tiny book it's extremely valuable.

This Ms Manners for editors is about good business practices. Saller employs humor in her writing--and tells us why it's important in client-editor relationships. She also gives editors a talking-to when it's needed: stop making excuses for not replying to an email, stop trying to lay the blame somewhere else, grit your teeth and smile although you want to burn the manuscript.

The underlying and painfully true theme is that editing a manuscript is not about the editor; it's about the author and ultimately about the reader. The editor is there just to work as a conduit in making the reader's experience as rewarding as possible. This sometimes means throwing grammar books out the window and going with gut feeling, or giving in to the author's odd spelling preferences. Editors are not in it for the glory, but Saller does remind authors that it wouldn't hurt them to thank also their editors publicly once in a while...

Even if you're not planning on being an editor, I'd still recommend this book because it gives great (and fun!) insight to the world of publishing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Just... bizarre

33. Enon opetukset by Petri Tamminen ("My uncle's teachings")

The About: Jussi is a 12-year-old who has a good relationship with his uncle, who is a mere 10 years older than the boy. What is it about this uncle that makes him such a champion in life? He always has the answers. As Jussi goes from being in his twenties to a divorcee in the late 30s, he's still searching for the answer as he still cautiously looks up to his uncle.

Thoughts: What a strange book. On the one hand, it's trying to be very, very deep with uncle's drunken philosophies and Jussi struggling with his own depression, but then on the other I felt like I only had a chance to skim the surface of these life-altering events and thoughts while bouncing from one drunken event to another. Jussi thinks he is a loser when actually he's just a depressed, middle-class man who is moderately successful. He looks up to his uncle who seems to have a better grasp of life than Jussi does, although he's a complete drunkard, a flake and a womanizer who always gets burned. At first, it seems like the story is idolizing a certain aloofness in life style and not caring about what others think--because that's what the uncle espouses. But maybe it's just an illusion, and as a reader I'm only seeing through Jussi's eyes, which are veiled by depression and feelings of failure. Jussi actually has a better handle on life than his uncle, but his uncle is just much better at bullshitting than Jussi is, and that's why he has become the guru of the family. The older Jussi gets, the more he begins to see flaws in his uncle.

Still. A strange book.

Friday, September 30, 2011

More of the Southern vampire saga

32. Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

The About:
In the fourth installment of the Sookie Stackhouse "Southern Vampire" novels, Bon Temps has unwittingly welcomed a couple of witches slightly more powerful than the local waitresses who dabble with Wicca practices during their free time and dye their hair black. When Eric the Vampire, sheriff of the area, appears in the middle of the night to Sookie not knowing who or what he exactly is, everyone is creeped out: necromancers are in town, and could with their powers kill all vampires by just sending them walking into the sunlight.

I have enjoyed reading these books while watching the series, because the series creator Alan Ball takes a lot of liberties with the TV show and thus, the storylines are not exactly the same. Although this book deals with the current 4th season of the TV show, it is also very different. Which actually is a shame: I feel like the show jumped the shark this season with having so many characters and story lines that my head is spinning: there's Sam the Shifter and his brother, the Weres and the Vampires, and another story for Tara, leaving Sookie--the main character!--just to prance around, smiling cutely and having sex with vamps. Oh, and then there is the story line of the witches, and another story line with Lafayette and his boyfriend who both can become possessed by demons. And I forgot: we also have to stop by occasionally to see how Andy Bellefleur is doing with his V addiction. Can't forget Sookie's brother, Jason, either and how he was mangled by the were-panthers. That's quite a lot to follow in one series, and hardly any of that is in the book!

The fourth book simply focuses on the witch story line and Sookie trying to figure herself out while trying to solve yet another mystery with the help of both living and the undead of all shapes. There is no Sam's asshole brother who has absolutely no redeeming qualities (why did they make him up for the TV show as such a big deal?), no V addiction issues, no being possessed by demons. And that's perhaps why the story in the book is so much smoother and easier to follow than the TV series at this point.

What's more, the books consistently have the same sense of humor and style, which have so far made the stories gel together really well. Unlike the books, the more the TV show creates its own characters and story lines, the more it makes Sookie a vapid, blonde side character. I really liked her in the first season, where she and the story were closest to the books: she was the sassy, stereotype-breaking Southern waitress who was quite quick on her feet. A lot of laughs. Now she's just... bleh. During first season, I also liked the differences: I liked that the show kept Lafayette around, and I thought the civil rights point of view brought to the vampire story was a smart move. But the further the seasons go, the more spread out the stories get with a dozen of story lines to follow and gratuitous nakedness thrown into the mix to distract the viewers from there not being anything else exciting going on.

So I'm happy to be reading the books, because although they do spoil the main events in the TV series for me, at least I get to have a glimpse of what the "real" Sookie would be doing in the TV series if the creators gave her the chance.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

30. The Glamour of Grammar. A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark

The About:
Clark's guide is aimed at anyone looking to improve their written language skills in English. It's divided into four parts: Words for tips on how to build vocabulary, including inventing words and reading dictionaries for fun; Points for how to deal with punctuation; Standards for reminders on good writing standards, such as how to avoid sexism in writing easily and how to steer clear from "hypergrammar" (I personally would have called this "how to avoid using Strunk and White as your Bible..."); and finally, Meaning that focuses on meanings behind grammatical structures and what they convey to the reader.

Although it's all about grammar, this book is a quick read. Clark really is at home with words, and most of his phrases and headings are a delight to read. Yet, his style never resorts to the jokey and snarky style of many modern grammar books. I have enjoyed them as well, but Clark's book follows his own rules of writing in a manner that is based on good grammar effortlessly with a very friendly tone.

31. Isänpäivä by Pirjo Hassinen ("Father's Day")

The About:
Olli Penger is a successful detective novel writer who loves to dwell on the gory details of his victims' murders but who is unable to write a believable kissing scene. To him, all of the victims in his novels still bear the face of his ex-wife Marja and instead of reacting in real life to their separation, he kills her again and again in his novels. But when a family member commits a horrifying crime, Penger decides to take responsibility by killing the detective genre and his detective character--whom Penger has always tried to become in his personal life.

This novel that seems on the surface extremely simple due to its easy readability and subject matter (gory crime!) is actually quite complex, so please keep on reading after the very first pages that are nothing but a brutal rape and murder scene (a few pages out of Penger's novel).

Because Penger has created the detective character Tähtö partly in his own image, partly as a man Penger desires to be, the journey into completely revamping the detective is unseltting because of Penger's pain and urgency to deal with the actual gory details in his personal life. It is heartbreaking to watch this character work on dealing with his pain in the only way he can--by resurrecting his dead characters and in effect apologizing to them instead of dealing with what is going on around him in living rooms and on the streets.

His act is a counter-reaction to a culture that wants to read about disgusting murders as long as we the readers know more about the people solving the crimes than the victims. And through this, author Hassinen jabs at novelists who are caught in the trap of mass-producing the ever-popular Scandinavian crime novel: they use violence as a backdrop for their often silent and stoic main characters that we look up to, but actually we would never read about those characters if they were not dealing with violence

The final question posed to Penger by media is, How much he and his novels are responsible for violence in his family, or in society in general. And there is nothing Penger can say in reply. Another question underlying in the final pages is what are we justified to sell in the name of entertainment, because people will devour violent stories whether they were published as fictional detective stories or as unconfirmed rumors on tabloid pages. Can we draw a line somewhere? Is there even a line to be drawn?

The book gave me a lot to think about, but at the same time there was so much subtle criticism crammed into the book that it was difficult to sometimes focus on each issue to recognize its real-life partner. I'll happily read this book again to be able to pay better attention to the subtleties.

Unfinished book of the month: 
Conundrum. An Extraordinary Personal Narrative of Transsexualism by Jan Morris

This was one of the two books recommended by Nancy Pearl that discuss the experience of going through a sex change from a personal point of view. Jan Morris wrote this book in 1974, making her one of the first ones to give a loud, resounding voice to transsexualism. So it was not the topic that made my interest go away: it was just the way the book was written. The time when Jan was still James is all about stories of upper middle class British school and choir experiences, and... you know me. You know my reaction to any British school house stuff, and I'm sorry to say that Ms. Morris became a victim of my violent dislike to reading about rich kids at a boarding school (and then the army!). So, when the notification from the library came to return the book, I did not renew it.

I'll be getting the other recommended book soon, though!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Of grownups and children

29. Karkkipäivä by Markus Nummi ("Candy Day")

(Candy day is a very Finnish concept: kids have one day in the week when they can eat candy, and thus candy is only a special treat--not an everyday indulgence. Attitudes toward this practice vary from support in teaching children that they should not have access to unhealthy food constantly, whereas the opposing view is that candy day practice makes candy a prohibited item, and might create later adults who console themselves with candy--or any prohibited items from their youth.)

The About:
Tomi is a small child with vivid imagination. His alter ego, a superhero-like character, wants to save the princess in the window across from his home. Sometimes the princess appears, sometimes the room remains dark. All Tomi knows is that princess Mirabella is bound by an evil witch and only he can save her now that he is all alone.

Paula is a store layout planner, which is a perfect job for her as her entire life is completely controlled and planned: she needs everything to be filmed for evidence, so she keeps a personal video blog while her daughter is grounded for shoplifting. Or maybe it was Paula who shoplifted? Small details! 

Author and screenwriter Ari lives in the same block. He tries to pull a story together for TV executives but his characters remain flat. While his wife and children are on holiday, Ari is followed home by a small, dirty boy. Ari has reasons to suspect that this boy is a victim of abuse, but when he calls the social workers he manages to make himself sound like the prime suspect with his story about a boy with a superhero name and a captive princess. 

Social worker Katri is working on her presentation on the past and future of social services for children, even when she is not at the computer. Ari's phone call makes her go back in time to a case that was especially painful for her. Should her presentation include notes on personal regrets and recurring nightmares? 

In the first chapter, Ari asks his wife to read his new book, which is about the events of that fateful day when Tomi followed him home. Leena agrees that the story is great, and so we begin to read the novel. It's meta-fiction time!

It is obvious that Nummi has, as he points out in the notes, researched child welfare services for his novel--some cases mentioned in the novel have even been borrowed from actual reports. Still, the story's criticism is not, as one would expect, aimed at child social services and its inadequate handling of cases, but more to the responsibility of individuals in a given community. Some are too eager to report anything they consider even slightly suspicious, thus diverting social worker energies from genuine cases, whereas others shut their eyes and ears from even the most horrifying events. How to find the perfect balance between these two extremes in order to help children on time?

In the novel, wheels begin to roll because of one child, who himself has been abused. Adults around seem clueless but well-intentioned, yet they are not doing much until warning signs are flashing bright red. 

And then there is the princess. As the story progressed and I begun to understand the depth of horror behind her fairy tale it was impossible to stop reading. I needed to find out how the only character who makes no appearance except when others mention her will turn out. 

This story seems to have a happy ending, but just as I let out a sigh of relief I remembered the first chapter where Ari and his wife talk about his novel. I had to leaf back to confirm my suspicions and thus, the book become even more horrifying than it seemed at first glance. A wonderfully crafted story that does not let the reader go, even after the book covers have been closed shut. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dystopia and... Dystopia?

26. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The About: 
Kathy H., a carer, reminisces her life in a secluded boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere not too far from Norfolk, where she met perhaps the only important people in her life, Tommy and Ruth. They wouldn't really know their location or about anyone else, really, as their knowledge of the outside world comes only from their guardians, who bit by bit tell the children about their futures as donors. Through her memories Kathy tries to piece together the reality of what Hailsham meant for the children--a school for special children who needed to produce art and stay extremely healthy--and the reality when it dawns on her, and on all of the students eventually as they grow older, that their main purpose in life is to provide organs for other people. Although they learn about this at an early age, coming to terms with it is an entirely different process altogether.

It's almost impossible to write about this book without revealing some twists and turns. Early on, the reader will realize that when Kathy is a carer for donors and some of the donors are from her old school, we are really talking about people who are prepped to be donors. Then slowly, just as for the children growing in Hailsham, the truth about their lives is revealed. The reading experience is surprisingly similar to the children's growing experience: we know what is going to happen, but we still don't know enough. But maybe just enough to think we have been informed all along. Maybe that is why the ending does not come at all as a surprise, but is more like a depressing, expected end to the story although it is still slightly eyebrow-raising.

I have never before read anything by Ishiguro (for shame!), and I enjoyed his writing style very much. It's very straight-forward and lacking in flowery prose, yet it manages to create a dream-like haze around the story so it felt like I was reading the novel inside a cloud. And although I usually would roll my eyes at some of the stylistic choices*, somehow they did not bother me enough to stop reading this time.

Never Let Me Go is actually a very odd book: I can't tell whether I really liked it and that it deserves all the praise it's been getting, or whether it's a really mediocre book that does not have a single original thought in it. It's not like novels very much like this in style and topic haven't been written before (Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake comes to mind, and people better versed in sci-fi than I could name probably dozens of examples), so what made this one so special? It's even a boarding school story, which I usually can't stand with all the concentration on clicks and mindless teaching sessions. The book is an easy read, and a bit of a puzzler--which is why some have called it a sci-fi thriller--so it's basically like reading a whodunnit with less blood, gore and guns. But the suspense is still there.

The characters may be the carrying force in the novel: they all seem very real. Ruth is absolutely terrible in her two-facedness, and probably all of us have met someone like her; someone who kisses up to people she likes and makes up lies to cover her ignorance. Kathy, the narrator, is almost a tabula rasa: she attempts to understand everyone's motivations for bad or good behavior, and is ready to forgive everything. We readers just have to remember that this is how she tells how she is, but often in the story her behavior is everything but angelic: she also can be catty and a terrible friend--and we're just supposed to feel bad for her because she herself feels bad for her behavior. And then there is poor Tommy, whose temper tantrums, occasional idiocy and lack in artistic talent leave him on the lower rungs in Hailsham's hierarchy and possibly on the express lane to become a donor. Just like often in real life, I don't understand why these three even hang out with each other if they have so much trouble getting along.

Then there is the issue of what is this story about. Well. It could be about the horrors of science gone too far. The more I read it, I felt like there also was an analogy to animal rights' movement hiding somewhere under there. Free-ranged is better than cage-raised, right? And although I would be tempted to say that the book is about friendship, the more I think about it the less it seems so. It's more about settling for friends because you don't know anybody else due to circumstances. Quite depressing. So... just enjoy it and take the book as you wish: a cautionary tale or a sappy romantic story akin to The Love Story.

(*He does this magazine-serial thing constantly, where he'll refer to an incident that has not yet been talked about in the most cliffhangerish way possible. You know what I'm talking about (I made up the following examples): "We all were great friends that summer but looking back, I should have known on the day we found the small rat that it would all fall apart..." *que chapter about the small rat incident* "Now the small rat buried, and us standing there with awkward smiles, there was something odd in the air. But we would remain great friends until the day our teacher saw what she shouldn't have." *que the scene with the teacher*. "That event definitely put a wedge into our friendship, and I suppose I had suspected that the teacher was going to be behaving oddly already earlier that summer, but I just didn't put the pieces together back then.*que scene about what happened earlier that summer* And so on. You can almost hear the Dun-dun-DUUUUN! play in the background each time. )

27. Ruuhkavuosi by Pauliina Susi ("The Entire Year Booked", perhaps)

The About: Minna is a 30-something woman attempting to manage her life: within the upcoming year, she only needs to finish translating about 5 formulaic romance novels, pop out a baby and help build a house from scratch with his boyfriend, who is reluctant to marry, all the while finishing her master's thesis (for which she doesn't even have a topic yet...). Her calendar triumphantly already announces all the finished products in the future, but the further the pregnancy and the house building project go awry, the further Minna seems to slip into depression and get lost in her lack of control. Although the story on the surface is absolutely depressing, Susi manages to squeeze out multiple laugh-out-loud moments from both Minna's irrational thought processes and her sharp tongue without ever ending up belittling the protagonist.

Thoughts: Written slightly tongue in cheek, this story manages to take a realistic look into the head of a control freak who ends up suffering from post-partum depression big time while still keeping an upbeat mode. In the beginning Minna simply seems like a drama queen, and I had a good laugh at some of the word choices and thought-processes she had because they were so recognizable to me. When the mood of the book takes a turn to the darker and we find out that Minna's drama queen behavior has all along been a seed for depression, we can still laugh with her as she's attempting to understand why the other mothers in the adults-and-children group are such homicidal husband-haters while she herself is slowly coming to terms with her own personality. It's all in the style of writing, really, and I thought the story balances a difficult topic and humor together very well.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to screw a family over, Norwegian style

25. The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

The About:
Norwegian journalist Seierstad was accepted into an Afghan family to observe everyday life. The family knew that she was going to write a book about them, so she has protected the family with made-up names. The family's life centers around the father, Sultan, who is a bookseller in Kabul and a fervent defender of right to free speech. At the same time, his teenage bride, elder wife, and the rest of the family, really, lives under fear of him: are they able to go to school depends on what Sultan thinks; whether they are allowed to communicate with people with whom Sultan has broken ties with depends on him; and ultimately, who is allowed to continue living under his roof depends on him and his quickly shifting moods as well.

This nonfictional account written in a novel form depicts the life of all family members from the 3rd point of view. As Seierstad explains, all descriptions are based on what people told her about their encounters with other family members and their feelings toward politics and the law and thus she was able to tell their stories even when she was not present. Seierstad has completely removed herself from the story, and any reactions the family may have had of her.

First of all: Seierstad got sued by Rais, "Sultan", because it would have been obvious who he was even under anonymity. He was, after all, a famous bookseller in Kabul! And he got pissed off by Seierstad's portrail of him and his family members, who in the book seem to all more or less hate him. She was found guilty of defamation and had to pay damages to "Sultan's" wife.

I don't know. I wish Seierstad had either gone all the way nonfiction and included herself in the story and called it "The Bookseller of Kabul and I" or then just used her information to create a completely fictional account. I think that's why she got into trouble: in the introduction she says that she portrays everyone fair and square, just as they had presented themselves to her, but... It feels weird that she'd think that she'd be able to give a just account of this family's experiences just because people told her how they felt. She didn't think that they'd filter and exaggerate their opinions because she was a white woman who was not following cultural rules (she was the only woman in the household allowed to dine with men, or walk alone on the streets!) and she'd told them she would write a book about them? That that wouldn't affect how people would communicate with her? Seriously? Occasionally, the passages where Sultan--the patriarch--rants and raves to his friends about politics in a very candid manner I thought... Is this what Sultan told Seierstad happened when he talked about politics with his friend, or is this what really happened? Because he seems like a heck of a brave person to be so opinionated. (And of course his friend had stupid opinions. Isn't that how we tell stories that involve ourselves: we are in the right and others behave silly?)

The women of the family are different, because it sounds like they did not talk to Seierstad as much as Sultan did--most likely because they didn't speak English like the men of the family did, and this Seierstad tells us in the introduction to the story. In the sections about what the women think of their lives it really feels as if she's merely projecting her feelings onto them and she crafts this narrative of what these people must think when they live in such oppressive situations.

Combine these questionable passages with just random stylistic changes: Seierstad goes from very floral and metaphorical writing jarringly quickly into reporter mode, where she begins to list pure facts from the history of Afghanistan devoid of any emotion, before embarking again on reflecting on how disappointed Sultan's son is because he cannot leave the bookstore to do what he wants. This can happen within easily within a few paragraphs. It's just... bizarre. I really feel like the book would have been much better had she been in the journalist mode all throughout it, without trying her hand in creative writing. The two styles are just too different.

In addition, either her writing style is not that great or the translation was not that great. Occasionally I had to stop and think, "What on Earth does this sentence mean?" Or then you get things such as, "...there are many things one can think of when one needs someone to vent one's wrath on." Is the family member suddenly mimicking a sarcastic tone a la the British royal family, or what is this stuff? My guess: a passive sentence gone wrong in translation.

I don't know Norwegian, but it sounds like the sentence structure is often like in Finnish: you first say where something happens/is and then the subject of the sentence--the existential sentence. But in English, this sounds often odd, especially when it's repeatedly used. I mean things like (and now I'm making this up), "On the windowsill there was a bar of soap" and "under the chair there was a cat sitting."  From the book, from a randomly picked page: "On a concrete block of flats in Mikrorayon no. 4, big signs have been hung with the word 'Courses'." By the time the reader comes to the end of the sentence, the place where the word Courses appears has already been forgotten. What's wrong with writing something like "Big signs saying 'Courses' are hung on a concrete block of flats in Mikrorayon no. 4"? I probably would not have thought of this structure much had it not been used incredibly often.

With all that said, I still enjoyed reading through the story when I kept on reminding myself that this is a real Afghanistan family Seierstad is writing about, so I tried to take it as interesting nonfiction. I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not read that Hosseini book which was amazingly written. I could not help but compare this to it, because the subject matter ended up being fairly similar. The difference in execution was just like night and day.

"Sultan" has written his own book, called There once was a bookseller in Kabul where he tells his side of the story, but it has yet to be translated into English. This should be done asap! The story is pretty interesting, as "Sultan" is now seeking asylum in Scandinavia because his and his family's safety is threatened by Seierstad's book--something that definitely breaks all sorts of journalistic ethics.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Old fogies

24. Mielensäpahoittaja by Tuomas Kyrö ("Upset")

The About:
The protagonist is a WW2 vet who lives in a small village in Finland. After his wife had to be taken to a nursing home because of her worsening Alzheimer's, our brave protagonist decided to have a meaning to his life: writing letters to the editor! Each chapter is a little letter to an editor of whichever magazine or newspaper strikes his fancy, and each begins with "I got so upset the other day, when..." Reasons to get upset range from discovering a sun beam in his living room to breaking his hip when he falls down the stairs (and on the second day of lying on the steps wonders if it's time to yell for help). He thinks that Valentine's Day should be replaced by "Mind your own business" day--and this he tells the world happily. After all, his friend had advised him that it's no use bottling feelings up, so he has decided to go ahead and complain. Sometimes personal details slip into his complaints, mainly about his relationship with his very modern son. Should he just face it that he's an old git who just doesn't get it?


I laughed out loud multiple times reading this, because Kyrö's usage of language is often simply delicious. He really has hopped into the boots of an old, groggy and angry man who thinks that the newer generations know nothing about music, food, movies or how to dress up. Just some of the words he uses made me giggle. And lest the book would get too formulaic, Kyrö sometimes slips in sentiments that I found myself agreeing with. Uh oh, am I getting old now, too, or are this old man's demands not so crazy after all? At the end, the protagonist turns out to be much more sympathetic than you'd think, and the reader finds that there always is a reason for people behaving the way they do. The reasons are not always necessarily great, widely-approved of reasons, but they are reasons nevertheless.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Quick and fun reads

21. Kätketyt by Johanna Sinisalo ("The Hidden")

This is a teeny tiny book from one of Finland's leading sci-fi authors, but I guess it counts as one...

The About:
Anna has just recently gotten a new job in a new town, and is having a hard time finding friends. After one especially depressing day she heads out to the bar. When she gets back from the restroom, a handsome man is sitting at her booth. Tired of her lonely life, Anna begins to pour her heart out to the man and is pleasantly surprised when he leaves a string of numbers for her--except that they are not his phone number! When a colleague clues Anna in on what geocaching is, Anna realizes that the numbers the man left behind are coordinates. Anna begins to trail the man who plays so very hard to get.

Shortly about a short book. If you start reading this, please read it all the way through. Apparently, it was written for a commission for a women's magazine, and the style really shows: unlike Sinisalo's sci-fi books, this is not filled with details and smart beings, but with gossipy characters and whenever make-up is applied, it's done with a lot of detail... Honestly, up until the two last pages I was rolling my eyes at this story, because I thought it was a ridiculously stereotypical, uninteresting romantic story involving a trendy hobby.

I was wrong. So, so wrong.

When I read those last two pages, I had to reread them a couple of times. Then I didn't want to put the booklet down. Then I wanted to read the whole thing again. I can't tell you what made me do that because it would be awfully spoilery, but if you ever run into this book, READ IT!

22. and 23. Book Lust and More Book Lust by Nancy Pearl

Seattle's superstar librarian inspiring people to read!

The About:
Recommending books is tough business. Should your recommendations be based on what kind of genres your readers usually read, their favorite authors, their favorite subjects? Nancy Pearl has a new method for expanding your reading experience beyond comfort zones: she has simply invented her own little genres, and bunches up very different kinds of books together. Are you interested in reading books about Oklahoma? Well, here are the best ones! Do you like books where an animal is the main protagonist? Here are some great ones! In addition, each book has recommendations for teenagers and young readers. Sometimes, authors are lifted out of the crowd for a "Don't miss this author" chapter.

The beauty of these books is that each recommendation is based on Nancy Pearl's personal opinions. She wouldn't just recommend a best seller; if the book didn't move her or make her think, it's not on the list. This is also why she doesn't have many books that might be your, your or your Very Favorite Books: maybe she didn't like them, or maybe she has never heard of them. Maybe she simply forgot about them and remembered right after the book got published (hence, More Book Lust). These books are wonderfully opinionated and make even the more uninteresting books seem like they're worth a try.

Nancy Pearl has this amazing skill of condensing a story into just a couple of sentences that make the story sound absolutely fascinating--without ever resorting to spoilers! Although I am not at all interested in books about, say, Oklahoma, I still managed to read the very short synopses and Pearl's reasons for why the books should be on everyone's reading list. I ended up getting acquainted with authors and books that I would never have dreamt of picking up at the library upon just seeing them. I'm thinking that if Pearl had some of my absolute favorite authors among her "Don't miss this author" sections of the book, I might enjoy the other authors she recommended as well.

I began to write down titles that sounded interesting but I had to stop when my library wish list grew unmanageable...

If you ever wonder, Which book should I read next? pick up one of these Book Lust books: they'll give you plenty to think about.

On curing myself of ignorance, step by step

Sometimes there are books that make me feel in awe of the writer: the skill of using sounds, connotations and flow that grasps the reader to follow every single word immediately. Then there are times when I do not quite know what I am feeling, when the awe is mixed with being subtly humbled by the content, or by having interestingly egotistical sides of my thinking revealed.

These are definitely that kind of books.

19. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The About sans Spoilers: Mariam is an Afghani girl born out of wedlock, a shame to everyone. She dreams of a day when she can escape her oppressing, bitter and vile-mouthed, traditionalist mother and go live with her father, who brings Mariam lavish gifts and shows unconditional love to her. When one day she decides to reach for something more than her life as an unwanted young woman living in a small hut, her world collapses and she ends up in a situation even more oppressing than before.

Laila is also a young woman, albeit born 20 years after Mariam. Her family is liberal and educated, and they want to make sure that Laila will also become an independent woman who marries for love--after she has gained an education. But as war descends on Afghanistan, all the ethics and morals she is familiar with are swept away, and she suddenly finds herself relying on Mariam.

The Thoughts (spoilers within):

When I read the back of the book--which read very close to what I wrote above--I was not sure whether the story would be my cup of tea. Two women finding solace in each other during hard times? Is this going to be Steel Magnolias, Afghanistan edition? After reading the book, I understand why the back sleeve needed to tip-toe around the topic: there is no way one could condense into one paragraph the terrifying cruelty these women each face merely because of law based on religion. There is no short way of describing what it feels like to watch a relatively liberal, reasonable country fall apart and begin to treat half of its population like cattle, almost overnight. Although the situation has now changed once more, old habits die hard.

This is where I felt shame. Of course I had already known before that in places like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, women were not always required to hide their painted nails or they'd get a beating from any man on the street from cops to brothers to strangers. As recently as in the 1970s women still went to college, dressed up in Western garb, and did not need chaperons. It is incredibly hard for me to even imagine what it must have been to be a young woman at that time, and then see the revolution come and sweep all the rights from her. Walk alone during day time without a male family member? Get a beating. Wear pink socks? What a whore, get a beating.

The shame came from not knowing this early enough. I am embarrassed to admit that whatever little I learned from school of the Middle East countries never looked at their recent history from a regular citizen's point of view, and having lived so far away I never thought that everyday life had changed so recently, and so incredibly drastically there in a span of only a few years.

Hosseini's book, although fiction, seems* to give an accurate account of these events. It's gut-and-heart-wrenchingly sad, and the story just does not let the reader to catch any relief. This reality is there for you to look into the eye and face it. And doing just that makes me want to learn more of the realities in countries I might not be able to safely visit in my lifetime. (That, by the way, was that egotistical thought of mine, and it made me blush almost as much as my ignorance on the topic).

Content aside, the book was a delight to read. Hosseini uses delightful language, and he can write action scenes really well. I could feel my heart start to race toward the end, where a horrifying sequence of events unfolds. Marvelous writing,  indeed.

(*As I have not ever experienced Afghanistan, I can only rely on reviews.)

20. Parvekejumalat by Anja Snellman ("The Gods on the Balcony")

The About: 

Anis is the teenage daughter of a Somali refugee family in Finland. The life within her family's small apartment and the one inside her school, the shopping malls and the community college classes clash, and Anis is torn by the re-evaluation of morals that her family imposes on her. After all, the morals of her friends and classmates seem drastically different. The more Anis looks at her quiet mother and the brothers who hypocritically gamble and drink while tailing Anis on the town to squeal on her doings, the more she is convinced that she needs to break away from her family's traditions--even literally, when she is locked away into the family washing room.

Zahra is not Zahra's real name. She had a Finnish name, but after converting to Islam she threw that away along with all her other earthly possessions. She has started a Finnish group for people who are interested in Islam to educate ignorant Finns on what Islam and being a Muslim really is, in hopes that ignorant crap about how oppressed women really are within Islam will be unlearned by meeting cool Muslim women, all of whom are fairly recent converts. Zahra's reasons for converting to Islam are complicated (not made any easier by her liberal, artistic and frivolous mother), and these reasons keep her still bitter and grounded to her past life. She needs a way to prove herself that she is a good Muslim, beyond just educating people about Islam.

The About:

I swear, I did not plan on reading these books back-to-back. I just happened to have them unread on my desk, and read one after the other. Only while reading the second book did I realize how similar this and A Thousand Splendid Suns actually were topic-wise, although the execution of the story of two women whose lives will collide was different.

Whereas Hosseini's book gives only a slight sliver of hope only to grab it immediately away, Snellman's story has more of a positive, expectant tone. Anis is, after all, living in a liberal society, so it feels inevitable that she should want to assimilate to that and the transfer should be easier than that of any woman living in Afghanistan. This time, it is Zahra who is considered a weirdo for wanting to cover herself in a veil. Although the cultures in these two books are different, the cultural heritage is not. Zahra wants to feverishly believe in the literal version of Koran, where nobody has to wear a veil, and nobody gets beaten with a cane if dinner is not adequately warm. Anis, on the other hand, lives the reality of how some people interpret and live by the very same text, and to her Islam is not the comforting blanket Zahra experiences it as.

This novel, despite its hopeful undertones, is also a tearjerker. I wanted to throw the book in the corner after finishing it, just because I was so angry. Don't take this the wrong way: the book is great, the writing is good... It's just that the story was so unfair. It's a fault of mine: I have a hard time coping with unfairness, even in fiction. You can imagine how I was squirming in my seat in pain while watching The Dancer in the Dark...

I'm curious about how this book was read in the immigrant and refugee communities of Finland, as it certainly does not paint a very lovely picture of Somali Muslims. The author does thank a variety of people who has helped her while writing the story, including people within immigrant communities. But I still wonder: how accurate (and respectful) a portrayal can a non-Muslim, very liberal woman who has never lived in a Muslim country really tell? Wouldn't the story always end up being filtered by prejudice and the author's personal view on what is morally right and wrong? I imagine that she'd have to tread very carefully.

After a quick Google search I found a Finnish message board for all issues Islamic, where a user attacks not only Snellman but also Hosseini as  a liar and an agitator. Although Snellman's book, title and all, gives a nod to a tragic event in Sweden where Kurd girls were pushed off a balcony, the message board user claims that Snellman is doing nothing but generalizing and stereotyping: after all, Somali culture behaves very differently from other Islamic cultures, and not every family is an extremist one.

And therein lies the dilemma: when one wants to write about the seedy side of any religious organization because it is obviously bothering the author and she has an agenda about it, what's the best way of doing it? After all, violence and oppression is a fact in many religions, although not everyone practices their religion that way. Surely not every single Somalian in Finland is a Muslim extremist, so perhaps Snellman would have been better off to explain in her novel why the family was so extreme. The positive side of Islam is only told through Zahra, who is painted as a naive young woman escaping hardships into the arms of religion. You could compare her to a blue-eyed girl who wants to become a Christian because she likes Jesus's peaceful message, but then she has to deal with a family who is all about the Old Testament: stoning women, getting kids killed who dare to talk back to old people, taking multiple wives, owning slaves... you name it. And that family would be portrayed as the norm among Christians. At the same time, I think it's absolutely fair to also talk about how horrific some movements may be. Why should we always try to paint the most positive picture there is?

Although I did enjoy reading this novel a lot, I felt slightly uncomfortable about it. Maybe that's good; at least it made me think a lot.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On language: technicalities and execution

17. Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. A Polemic in Seven Fits by David Denby

This entry was written months before the downfall of News of the World, but I just didn't get around to posting it. How appropriate it seems now...

The about
Denby details snark clearly: it requires the writer to have an audience that will not only laugh along, but which will also tut-tut along to some usually imaginary/gossip-based moral outrage while thinking that the writer is a particularly clever individual. And nobody need to check any facts. The snarky writer can use hyperbole and lambast his object with scary imagery, while nudging and winking at his readers. You know what I'm talking about, right? Britney is a total slut, amirite? Then, if a reader or the object of snark actually dares to talk back, they are told to lighten up and not take things so seriously because it was all just a jest. What a perfect shield to hide behind!

Denby traces the origins of snark back to the Ancient Romans, explains what differences there are between satire, irony and snark and finally, takes a few people by name to task for being lazy snark writers. One small chapter is dedicated entirely to Maureen Dowd, the columnist of the New York Times whose political commentary consists of commenting on how effeminate male politicians are and how ball-busting the females are, without ever revealing what political stance Dowd herself stands by. It would be impossible to say, as her opinions on who is up and who is down seemingly change based on whether she has come up with a sharp jab worthy of posting, regardless of its factual basis.

Snark often revels in homophobia, racism and misogyny, which Denby includes in his rules on how to write effective snark: find the lowest common denominator amongst your crowd that you think gets laughs or enraged approval. Other rules include dismissing journalistic integrity for cheap laughs and feeding the reader's inner Peeping Tom.


Denby manages to put into words what I have found slightly unsettling in various magazines and newspapers  I read: I did not recognize this writing style as snark, just as writing personas bringing more attention to themselves than to the issues they were writing about. I canceled a subscription to a Finnish magazine years back when I would find that I'd never learn anything from the articles, save for what supposedly witty remarks the authors spouted. It was a young magazine, and since then I have read individual issues that actually have interesting journalistic content and less focus on snark and the writers' personalities.

Snark was very informative and at the same time very well written, so it was a joy to read. I had to chuckle at the few instances of snark that the author commits within the writing, probably to illustrate the point he makes in the introduction that nobody is above using snark every now and then. Denby's annoyance with snark stems from writing that solely relies on this particular style that he sees as lazy, locker-room gossip that is hurtful these days because these writings and manufactured facts remain on the Internet. He mentions the website Juicy Campus, where men can rate/denigrate the women they have slept with on campus completely anonymously, while posting the women's full names and even pictures. Some individuals feel the need to out gay guys on the same site, and post about their suspected drug habits, who knows why. Some might say that this is harmless, but maybe the potential employer of a woman or a man whose info is posted on that site thinks twice about hiring these people, if they have been labeled as sluts and drug addicts--even if the writing is based on some anonymous guy's hurt feelings. The reader doesn't know the truth, because the accused are not there to reply with their side of the story, and nobody can talk face-to-face with the accuser, who is hiding behind anonymity.

18. The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing by Bonnie Trenga

The About:
Trenga takes the reader on a copy editing adventure through a series of mysteries. Each one is about a page long and is riddled with authors' stumbling blocks like clichés, mixed metaphors, punctuation that's all over the place--you name it. After each mystery, Trenga explains why the mystery sucks and what you should do to fix it. Rewriting is encouraged!

This is a very silly book, and thus a good approach to a topic that people without any interest in grammar or style might not touch with a ten foot pole. Each short mystery is so filled with laughably bad style that it's clear what's wrong with them, and if the reader can't quite put into words why the story is terrible, Trenga will break it down.

As a teacher I'm also fond of the sort of teaching approach this book uses, which is where students have to figure stuff (grammar or facts) out themselves, instead of being given lists of rules to memorize. There are plenty of style guides and editors' handbooks that list comma rules and how to spot run-on sentences, but rarely do they begin by showing a text with unclear writing and having readers first figure out what's wrong before they get to see the rule.

I'd recommend this book for any middle or high school teacher (why not even more advanced students?) who want to show their kids that being careful about what they write can be fun.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The messes in our heads

15. Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

Trigger warning: You might not want to read this book if you are recovering from an eating disorder or have an unhealthy relationship with food.

I was a teenager when Ally McBeal, a quirky show about a duck-face making, man-hunting lawyer become hugely popular, and I was among the people watching it. I was probably also one of many who was wondering whether the show required all of its female cast members to be anorexic. My friends and I compared notes on the cast's clothes: who this time wore a scarf to hide their sinewy neck, and who never showed their arms. I especially remember one picture of Portia de Rossi partying outside filming the show, and her limbs were just bone and looked oddly mangled.

That picture can be found in this book, and its effect is well executed in the context. Heartbreaking.

If you excuse the cliché, Unbearable Lightness is a remarkably brave look into the brain of a person with a severe eating disorder. de Rossi lets the readers know how exactly she felt about her relatives crying because she was so thin, or her best friends pointing out anorexic-looking women at the gym with disdain: she thought that people were simply exaggerating when they worried over her, and she felt happy that she had finally become so thin that people actually had to remark about it. To her, her weight falling to a fragile 82 pounds was a sign of discipline that others were incapable of and besides, in her mind she did not do anything that everyone else around her seemed to be doing. Since the age of 12 she had been modeling and been told to lose weight, and ever since then she would binge on food until she was sick, and then she'd starve herself for the next photoshoot. It was normal to her, and she tells in the book how she was flabbergasted when her nutritionist was absolutely shocked upon hearing about de Rossi's binge eating habits that de Rossi herself considered reasonable.

The book is at the same time amazing in its candidness and how well written it is, but it's also scary. Because of the details that helps the reader to step into the mind of an anorexic, the book also reads as a "Becoming Anorexic for Dummies" book: how many minutes does one need to run before and after going to bed, how many lunges to do while walking normally in your own home, how little to eat and how to obsessively measure each morsel of food... This is not a book for anyone who is recovering from an eating disorder, because although the de Rossi does not glorify her eating disorder, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, she lost 20 pounds that easily?" before coming back to the notion that wait, that easy route is extremely unhealthy!

It's weird at the same time to want to tell everyone about this remarkable book, and yet at the same time not want people to read it, lest they get any ideas...

16. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks became familiar to me through Radiolab podcasts, where he would be a guest on shows that dealt with neurological disorders, such as prosopagnosia or obsessive compulsive behavior. The way he talks and has his own little neuroses was quite charming (and he has a wooden box filled with vials containing the elements from the periodic table... how cool is that?), so I started to look into his books. This was the first one to become available at the library.

It's a collection of clinical cases Sacks encountered before the 1990s, all dealing with neurological disorders that go from absolutely fascinating to terrifying. There is a man who had stopped recognizing objects and people, and would only recognize people if they had something on their face or the way they moved that nobody else had; there's a lady who lost control of her limbs if she was not looking at them; an old man thought he was still in his early 20s because he could not remember anything new that happened to him, and so on.

Sacks doesn't just recount these cases and puzzles, but also talks in depth about the hormonal imbalances, medications or any other reasons that may have triggered what he calls neurological deficits, and often he goes back to referring his best-selling memoir Awakenings, which was later made into a movie--simply because the drug L-Dopa used with the patients in Awakenings was helpful in so many of these cases where people got stuck in time, had Tourette's or other compulsive behaviors.

Often humorous, yet sad, these short essays reveal how scary our brains can be.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The negative side of being positive

14. Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich

What could be wrong with being positive? Always look on the bright side of life, right? Well, yes and no. This book is about movements within the United States that stress being positive over anything else, which then may lead to unpredictably bad results. As an example of this are motivational speakers and consultants, who shamelessly tell big CEOs to get rid of any employees who express negative feelings and do not contribute to a very positive environment. Unfortunately this also means, that these CEOs will get then rid of anyone who says, "But um... looks like if we purchase this company, we are going to lose a lot of money and we'll be bankrupt in a year." And this is what Ehrenreich looks into: when forced positivity takes over looking at the world realistically, which may even lead to large issues such as the financial bank crisis or a war.

The other issue that positive thinking movement promotes is ignorance: many motivational speakers with whom Ehrenreich spoke said that one of their pieces of advice for people is to not watch the news, because it will have a negative effect on their lives. Could it also be that seeing in the news that those starving people all around the world are not able to change their lives simply through positive thinking might not get motivational speakers those desperately needed audiences and money?

The book focuses largely on motivational speakers and the prosper movement of evangelical churches, and how much influence these have within political parties, which in turn may make quick decisions without taking negative feedback into account. The only difference between the motivational speakers and the prosper movement is that the churches will not kick a negative person out of their company, but still the idea is the same: if you have a positive attitude toward life, life/God/higher powers/CEOs will reward you. The churches have even removed crosses from them because they upset people too much...

I have never read The Secret because it has sounded like bull from the get-go to me, and this book pretty much confirmed my prejudice: the book tells people to just "want" things enough, and the items come to them. Nothing is impossible. This has lead to people maxing out their credit cards and getting into debt, because they wanted a Gucci bag. Some people have even stolen goods because they felt like they deserved these items, thanks to The Secret.

It's an odd concept that through wanting something hard enough you will get it, because it focuses almost solely on material goods. What makes a person think that they are entitled to everything on Earth? Also, this kind of thinking puts a lot of pressure on people: what if you are a member of a minority in a minimum wage job with 5 kids, and you can barely feed them and now the youngest needs glasses and you can't afford them? Obviously, you are thinking too negatively about your life and you just need to think positively and want that money in your life, and you shall get it. Then if you don't get what you wanted, I guess it just means that you did not try hard enough. It's your own fault for failing.

It also creeps me out that the concept of prosperity and happiness in the US is, according to Ehrenreich's findings, very much tied to money. Can't people be happy without money and material? Again, no wonder people are maxing out their credit cards. If I just buy this expensive piece of furniture I'll be a better person...

This prosperity/positive thinking stuff sounds to me like something sold to middle-class, fairly affluent people who are not dealing with major setbacks in life and not surprisingly, the prosper evangelists or motivational speakers don't exactly stop at street corners to tell homeless people that if they just changed their attitude they'd get a job and a house.

There's nothing wrong in looking at the bright side of life. It only becomes problematic when one is allowed to think only happy thoughts and disregard all warning signs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Animal training

12. Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor

Yes, our household has officially gone clicker training crazy; from "I didn't know cats can be trained" to "OMG she's learning all these tricks!" in just a few weeks. If you want to learn more about clicker training, go to this Karen Pryor website, which has a bunch of links and resources.

After having watched a couple of low-quality YouTube videos and reading Pryor's wonderful Don't Shoot the Dog, a book about positive reinforcement, behavior shaping and operant conditioning, I got very intrigued by clicker training. Once we adopted our cat, we began to train her as soon as she was over her shelter bugs. She learned a "Come" command very quickly, and I was simply amazed. Still, I wasn't doing something exactly right because she would "forget" her command if she was at all distracted.

So I bought two books on the topic, with step-by-step instructions.

This Pryor book is a great introduction for clicker training for cats (and well, why not other animals, too?): the book explains shortly how operant conditioning works and when it works: not only does the trainer need to know when to give the positive reinforcement, he or she also needs to know whether something in the environment is hindering the cat from learning. In addition, the book talks about positive side effects of clicker training, which include the cat being more interested in you, the human, as a companion. And as a kitten owner, I can attest to one of Pryor's assertions: that the cat will spend a little bit less time tearing around the house and clawing at furniture when her energy is spent on trying to figure out how to get that positive reaction from the trainer.

The only issue this book (or the one below) does not cover is how the cat may accidentally become conditioned to the sight of the clicker. In our case, our cat immediately begins to purr and perks up when I take the clicker out, and she's really into being a working cat during training. As soon as the clicker goes away, only the most reinforced stuff stays in her mind. She's a completely different cat, based on whether I have the clicker in my hand or not. So, as a word of warning: try to hide that clicker.

I was also hoping to see more step-by-step instructions for the trainer instead of success stories.

13. Cat Training in 10 Minutes a Day by Miriam Fields-Babineau

Whereas the Pryor book focused more on the hows and whys of positive reinforcement in operant conditioning, this book focuses on certain tricks or behaviors, and shows via images and step-by-step instructions how to train your cat to do certain things (and how to correct her if you have taught her wrong).

This is an amazingly useful book, and I taught our cat within 10 minutes to sit upon command and a finger movement by just following the instructions. Each photo comes with an explanation of why the cat will do what you want her to do. This proved to be handier than I expected: as I was attempting to teach our cat how to lie down, the first step is to teach the cat to paw at your hand--which then makes the cat want to reach from the sitting position and eventually paw so low and far as you move your hand further that she will need to lie down. I thought, "If I can teach her to paw my hand, I can teach her to high five me!" She's now learning the high five. Yesterday, I tried to take a short film of her practicing, and I was reviewing the video while sitting on the floor. When I said on the video "high five!" she came to me and lifted her paw up. Haha, cute.

I don't think all the tricks in the book are that useful. For one, I would rather not have my cat learn twirling, but I guess it makes a cute trick. With that said, the author does stress that training should begin with teaching the cat commands that might end up keeping her safe; things such as "come," "sit." These are also needed before learning other tricks such as twining between legs (the cat needs to know the command "come" and how to follow a target) or standing up on command (from sitting position). Then you can go for the sillier ones such as "play dead." And like I said in our high-five case, even the sillier tricks can give the trainer hints for training something completely different.

The other part that was not very useful to me was the talk about Hollywood cats, but the inclusion of those stories is understandable: the author trains cats for commercials and movies, so these starlets are obviously a testament to the training really working.

This teeny tiny book is extremely useful with its simple instructions and illustrations, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has had enough of their cat jumping on tables or behaving badly due to boredom.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

- Look, kid! Tulips! - No, Dad, it's three lips!

11. The Infinite Gift--How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Charles Yang

What do you get when a linguist has a child? Plenty of fun research material!
Charles Yang's incredibly accessible, yet not at all dumbed-down book on language acquisition and learning talks about the ways in which the concept of a universal grammar seems very plausible considering how children learn to speak languages that surround them: most of the time, the so-called errors children make would actually be perfectly grammatical in some other language. And this is what the title refers to: an entertaining notion that children need to unlearn all other grammars first before they stick to the one they hear in the language spoken by their caretakers.

Because the groundwork for perfect grammar skills is laid out in the brain by the age of four or five, the book talks about various developmental stages where certain grammatical aspects are learned. Yang discusses not only the common errors that English-speaking children make when they are testing out their grammatical abilities and vocabulary skills, but also in which ways children always get grammar right, from the get-go.

The most intriguing bits for me personally were the segments where Yang explains how certain grammatical aspects are tested on children to see, what is the age when that aspect is acquired in grammatical knowledge. You cannot give a three-year-old a multiple choice sheet, asking to identify the correctly formed sentence, nor you can really ask a small children whether a sentence is correct or not because they are prone to say "yes" to any authority (or the other option: spout out nonsense and laugh hysterically). Lots of tests included Jabba the Hut and Kermit the Frog puppets.

Toward the end, Yang quickly throws some criticism toward educators and therapists: apparently, language acquisition linguists have not been consulted among when a child's language skills have been assessed by schools until fairly recently, which means that often, when a child seems to have language-related problems, the therapists have not been equipped with enough information about regional varieties in spoken language, or the ways in which usually children acquire languages. Their template is usually to look at what is the desired produced language form, and if the child is not using that by an age determined by whichever authority, then there's a problem. In Yang's opinion, all children deviate from the norm when they are learning a grammar--at one point or another. Also, because a "dominant" grammar of a language is used as the bench mark, this sort of testing makes children from "certain social and economic strata particularly susceptible to misdiagnosis" (173), mostly because of the regional variety or dialect issue.

Not only is the book extremely informative, Yang's writing style was entertaining and occasionally tongue in cheek, which made reading this book a breeze.

If you're ever concerned about your kid's odd sentences, check this book out. Maybe your child just needs to unlearn some German grammar before tackling English.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Check the publishing dates on your nonfiction books...

9. The Complete Guide to Understanding and Caring for Your Cat by Carole Wilbourn

This book taught me a valuable lesson: when picking out a nonfiction book, always--always--check when the book was written. I did not do that.

This book clears up a lot of concerns cat owners may have, such as whether a cat will suffocate you if she sleeps on your chest when you sleep. I had not even heard of this urban legend, but apparently in the 1980s it was an issue that needed addressing. Sheesh.

Reading an outdated book is also just awkward: I squirmed in my seat in embarrassment when the author spouted out truths such as cats cannot be trained at all (I have some YouTube videos that contradict that).

The book is not only outdated, it has a bizarre structure. At one point I read an interesting tidbit and wanted to find it again, but it was nearly impossible because of the format: questions and answers. The entire book is basically a huge FAQ, except that each answer is then followed by a follow-up question or an enthusiastic rewording of the answer, and it's next to impossible to find any valuable information amidst all the asinine questions (such as the myth about cats suffocating you). This is just a made up example of the format because I already returned the book and can't quote it, but bear with me:

I don't understand why my cat whisks her tail back and forth when she's playing. Is she being aggressive toward me? 
Don't fear: this is just regular cat excitement. Sometimes cats wag their tails when they are annoyed, sometimes they do it when they are overly excited.  
Oh, I get it! So what you're saying is that she's just really excited about playing with me! 
That's right! Cats have all sorts of interesting tail displays: when the tail points up, it usually means that the cat is happy and curious. When the tail is down, the cat is content but maybe cautious, and so on. 
What other ways are there to tell what my cat's mood is like?

etc. for a couple of hundred pages. Let's say I wanted to find what the author said about cat's tail movements and how they reflect the animal's mood. It would be almost impossible by just browsing the questions written in bold: you need to read all the answers again to find that one paragraph that gives you the answer, and it might be under a question that is simply a statement/recap of the previous answer and has seemingly nothing to do with the issue you are trying to look up.

I don't understand the Amazon reviewers who say that this is an easy book to read. I guess if you're into tangents...

10. Um--Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by Michael Erard

An entertaining look into the physio- and psychological reasons that are behind verbal blunders, and why we detest them so. I have much love for this book already because it shows how stupid Freud was with his analyses of slips of the tongue and consequently, how silly the notion of Freudian slips is.

All slips follow very rigorous rules of the grammar from the language we speak these blunders in: we're more likely to switch consonants around in our blundered word in a meaningful way than just blurt out xqrtbak. In fact, the latter would never happen.

Interesting, and now blindingly obvious, were the reasons for substituting opposite words in a sentence. One example Erard gives is how a person might say, "Could you open--I mean close the door?" The reason for this is simple, because the speaker's thought process goes something like this:
- Man, it's cold...
- Oh, no wonder! It's because that door next to Doris is open.
- "Doris, could you open--I mean close the door."

Our brain makes connections that our mouths do not always catch and correct before they come out, but we almost always notice these errors and correct ourselves.

Another classic example is word plays, where you trick people into saying the wrong thing. Erard gives the example of "poke:" ask a friend say the word poke many times over, and then say, "Quick, what color is egg white?" and they'll probably say "yellow"-- just because their brain predicted that whatever is going to come next will have to do with -oke, and the rhyming word dealing with eggs will be "yolk". When I was a kid, our version was this:
- What's the color of egg white?
- White.
- What's the color of this piece of paper?
- White.
- What's the color of snow?
- White.
- Quick: what does a cow drink?
and invariably, the person would say "milk" and cause an uproar of laughter.

All in all an informative book, especially in the sections that discuss the usage of "um" and other fillers ("like"), who are more likely to use them and why. One example is from academia, where professors from various disciplines were recorded. The recordings showed that professors from so-called hard sciences ummed far less than the humanities professors. This, however, does not reflect intellectual capabilities, but rather how much the discipline allows for individual thoughts. Umming was often seen as a marker for the listener to know that personal opinions might be thrown in to the lecture, or that the professor was contemplating about other ways in which the issue at hand could be interpreted before proceeding. In hard science lectures, one deals (stereotypically) with more facts and in less conversational tones.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Metafiction attack!

7. Peter-Peter by Aila Meriluoto

Peter-Peter is an epistolary novel, where a story of two immigrants in Sweden unfolds through Finnish librarian's, Sanna's, letters. The first letter approaches Peter to request his presence in a literature event, him being a well-known author in addition to his daytime job as a doctor. Sanna, a widow and a mother of two teenagers, takes a leap and begins a very personal correspondence with Peter, whose letters the reader never sees.

Whenever the two meet, the missing letters are filled in from Sanna's personal journal entries and her attempts at novelizing her affair with this married doctor.

Although the premise may not seem that earth-shattering, bear in mind that this is based on a true story of the author's experiences. The further we get into the story, the more reality begins to intervene, combined with possible law suits if "Sanna" would ever publish Peter's letters. The book ends with about 10 pages of Sanna's stream of consciousness written in dialect, her trying to rationalize to her therapist what happened between her and Peter, and how she could go about publishing their story without fears of retribution.

What an odd read! This will definitely go under the "social porn" tag in my Goodreads account...

8. 27 eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan by Alexandra Salmela ("27, or, Death Makes an Artist")

This book garnered a lot of attention last year as it was a Finlandia Prize candidate. Thing is, usually only Finnish citizens can become candidates for this prestigious award and oops--Alexandra Salmela is not a citizen. After much debate, the jury decided to let her stay in the competition and while she did not win this particular prize, her acceptance into it is a great testament to immigrant, non-native Finnish speaker writers (and Finnish learners!).

I'm very glad that her novel gained all this attention, because it's great. It's hilarious, ironic, self-deprecating and stylistically adventurous. There's something fresh in this book that I cannot pinpoint. It really is like nothing I have read in a long while.

The story goes like this: Angie, a student majoring in Finnish in Prague, wants to do something remarkable before she turns 28, which is the gateway age to boredom according to her. She painstakingly lists all legendary musicians who have died at age 27, and records what she is doing at the same age as them. She attempts writing a screenplay for a TV show, a radio play and finally settles on a novel about Finns. She goes to live on her professor's relatives' cabin in Middle of Nowhere, Finland, where the same yard is shared by a Finnish family: three children, an unemployed, ass-crack showing dad and an eco-maniac, tote-bag making mother.

The story gently mocks Finns, but it also mocks people who have stereotypical views of Finns. Sometimes it's hard to tell which form is being employed in the novel, because the stereotypes come way too close to reality.

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators (like the one in Monika Fagerholm's American Girl) and guess what--this one has its share of them, too! They are not unreliable in the sense that they want to explicitly lie to the reader: it's just that their view on other people is affected by their cultural background and their own, personal problems. The only completely reliable narrator is the family's car, who records only what people sitting in the car are saying without adding any emotions to them. In addition, the car painstakingly records all the actions from looking through the rearview mirror and turning the lights on to how a typical Finn parks a car (Step on clutch, change gear to one, roll forward while keeping the clutch down and braking. Brake to a stop and pull the handbrake up. Switch off engine).

Besides Angie and the car, other narrators include the family toddler's toy pig (who is ridiculously positive and naive) and the stray cat who roams around in the yard.

As with Peter-Peter, sometimes events can be interpreted only from Angie's exaggerated novelized versions of them, and the reader is left to decide what the underlying truth is.

A fun story that I want to read again at some point, because I feel like I missed a lot of subtleties during the first read.