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.