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Reading an outdated book is also just awkward: I squirmed in my seat in embarrassment when the author spouted out truths such as cats cannot be trained at all (I have some YouTube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The book is not only outdated, it has a bizarre structure.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.