Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Image: Google books
Two confessions off the bat: I rarely read autobiographies and I have not watched a single full episode of 30 Rock. I have nothing against biographies and although I like Tina Fey, I tried once watching 30 Rock, didn't find that particular episode funny, and then I just didn't try watching it again. Now, after reading Bossypants, I know that was the pilot which Fey herself finds embarrassingly bad, so... Maybe I'll give it another go?

Bossypants is my light holiday reading: I picked it up because I figured it's in large-ish font with wide margins and thus perfect snack reading in between more serious books (which I probably will never finish and write about here). And I could use something silly to read.

Not only was the book all that, it was surprisingly clever. I only say "surprisingly" because I had assumed that Bossypants would be a John Barry-like book of slightly chuckle-worthy, brainless anecdotes. Shame on me. In addition to Fey's funny anecdotes on growing up and getting into the entertainment business, she does get serious between the lines--while still keeping the tone punchy and hilarious.

Here's an example from her discussion about women in the business:

I've known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they're all "crazy." 
I have a suspicion--and hear me out, 'cause this is a rough one--I have a suspicion that the definition of "crazy" in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore. 
The only person I can think of that has escaped the "crazy" moniker is Betty White, which, obviously is because people still want to have sex with her.
Network executives really do say things like "I don't know. I don't want to fuck anybody on this show." They really do say that stuff. That's not just lactation-stopping dialogue on Entourage.

Her tone is honest, unapologetic but also undramatic: as in the case of sexism, she does not complain about it but instead, illustrates hilariously what the situations have been like and then how to overcome those obstacles. And if you can't overcome the situation and you can't overlook it either, she has tips for that as well.

The clever thing about this book is all the advice that she hands out without pointing fingers or claiming that the advice will work for everyone. Such as her list of how to become a good improviser in comedy, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat. It includes awesome advice such as the following, which could be found in any self-help book worth its salt:

MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying "Don't ask questions all the time." If we're in a scene and I say, "Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What's in that box?" I'm putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don't just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. 

Come to think of it, I would buy a self-help book written by Fey.

This tiny book covers entertainment business, motherhood, mentally wrassling with Lorne Michaels and the SNL cast, trying to keep a show afloat and feed families while posing for a magazine cover knowing that the final picture will be (thankfully) Photoshopped* to hell.

(*Protip from Fey: apparently feminist magazines are the best at Photoshopping, as they know what to leave in and still make the image flattering.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Knitting books--the Craft of Instructions

I'm 90% a self-learned knitter: having been forced to knit a hideously deformed mitten in second grade by a teacher who apparently had no idea of choosing appropriate crafts for various motor skill stages, I didn't feel any urge to knit ever again until I was in my mid-20s. Now that there was nobody telling me what to knit and how to knit, I just started picking up books.

I have read, used, and perused many a knitting book in order to not just learn how to knit, but to find patterns that don't scream awkward family photo ops during Christmas and uncomfortable sweatiness. The best place to do this are libraries and the craft sections, because the evolution of knitting books is readily available there.

In the past 30 years, knitting books have definitely shifted from practical no-nonsense to practical cuteness. The "You want to knit a useful thingy for your family, little lady? Here we go!" straight-forwardness has slowly morphed  into spinning a yarn (ouch! I had to) about the author's background, how she was inspired by landscapes, flora, her grandmother... and then each pattern will have a paragraph or two describing how the author came to create this sassy peace of clothing of most likely locally dyed alpaca yarn. It actually makes knitting books fun to read: not only do the authors need to know how to write instructions; they have to know how to write compelling stories.

Modern knitting books are filled with dreamy imagery and photos of women having coffee at a farmhouse in Scotland, wearing way too large rubber boots and sweaters and being twee. The other alternative is to begin sentences with "Not your grandmother's [hat/mittens/jacket/potholder]" displayed next to a punk girl sticking her tongue out and wielding knitting needles while wearing a knit skull-patterned bikini. And although this market is still very much dominated by women, there are knitting books either aimed at manly knits or written by men for men, such as the awesomely titled Knitting with Balls (link is safe for work, trust me). It is all about selling an aesthetic: although I will be wearing these socks in rainy Seattle, isn't a part of me buying the idea that these socks bring me closer to chopping wood with Tori Amos in windy Cornwall, surrounded by wild sheep and rock fencing?

Reading through these books has made me appreciate anyone who executes not just crafted story telling but technical writing well. I've purchased books based solely on the pictures of the end results, only to find that the instructions themselves are confusing. The annoying part is that you won't really know how good the instructions are until you work on the projects.

And this is the part where I exclusively rant about the do nots in these books. If you are a new knitter, you can skip ahead to my book recommendation.

Knitting is not that hard: once you learn a method, you notice that it is repeated over and over again in a variety of ways. That is why it is so disappointing when instructions recycle terminology: in one pattern X means X, but then in the next pattern X means Y! I've been happily knitting half a sock only to realize, that it's all wrong because I was using the terminology from the previous pattern. You have to unlearn what you just learned. Silly.

Related to that: it's OK to use jargon! 
The beauty in reading technical writing--whether it is knitting instructions or a guide on how to install a new ink cartridge to your printer--is that the vocabulary is consistent and precise. Specific jargon is used not to alienate people, but to make sure that everything has a name and its place in the instructions. Something you can trust.
Usually this is not a problem: many knitting books make sure to include a glossary for terms that may be unfamiliar to new knitters. Once you learn that a tricky 3-stage maneuver has a specific name, you will never need to look at the glossary again. Luckily, I have ran into only one knitting book where the author had for some bizarre reason decided to use vocabulary invented by herself. I'm sure it seemed like a cute idea at the time, but individualism would be best expressed in the end product and the surrounding stories, not in the vocabulary used if the aim is to get other people to knit your products and not just show off.

If a knitting book has actual illustrations and glossaries for techniques = great! 
The best knitting books use as little words as possible in the actual instructions and link to a glossary for unfamiliar terms. This way, you only need to have one page open to follow your work, instead of leafing back and forth. If something is too complicated to describe in words, the glossary will then show an illustration, because it's sometimes impossible to describe a way to wrap a yarn around two needles in words.

My cautionary tale of the opposite comes from an author, who had decided to explain everything in words: no images in sight (well, save for a total of two images in the back: how to cast on in two different ways), and the words she used were extremely vague. I even ended up unraveling and knitting the difficult bits by interpreting the instructions as their exact opposite to see, if that would resolve the issue and my possible misunderstandings. Nope. My product still looked nothing like in the final pictures, and I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. I have a basic understanding of how to make, say, a sock, so I just substituted a pattern from my head for the bits I didn't understand, and made it up as I went along. Felt a bit like a waste of money, really.

Check how the book makes sure you can actually fit into your creation
Again, a tale of Warn: I was following a sock pattern that simply said, "Knit using this pattern for 15 inches, and then begin the heel." Had I realized in the store that all lengths were in set inches, I probably wouldn't have bought the book. I mean, this makes no sense: it will produce the same length of a sock for every knitter, regardless of how long your legs are! So a short person will knit herself a thigh-high sock with these instructions, but can't wear it because the pattern does not take into account that the sock should be a bit wider at the top if it starts at thigh-high.

How do good books do this? "Knit until you are an inch away from your heel" or "Repeat until the sock covers your small toe" (for starting the decrease rounds at the end). Or even better, they provide ways to customize sizes by measuring if you are planning surprise socks for someone else.

Finally: are the books willing to concede that you don't have the money to buy yarn made out of rabbit fur?
I usually end up substituting all the yarn suggested in the patterns, either because I want to use something from my ever-growing stash instead of getting a new skein, I don't like the color options or--to be honest--I don't think I should pay a hundred bucks for materials for a shawl. Some books obviously have tie-ins with yarn makers, which is fine, but I get annoyed when the instructions do not mention the weight (=the thickness) of the yarn used, making it hard to replicate the pattern with other materials. These books will also have a handy list at the end showing where you can order these specific yarns.

There are books that do mention the weight of the yarn, and I take an immediate liking to them. It's like saying, "Hey, this is the yarn we prefer to use, but if you can't budget it--go for these alternatives." I have even seen books that say that explicitly.

The only exception I have made is a book specifically written for using Noro yarn. Noro is an expensive-ish Japanese yarn, and what makes it special is that all of the skeins are hand-dyed: none of them are exactly the same and the colors are ridiculously vivid. I bought the book to not only make the most of Noro's uniqueness but also to use the patterns for cheaper, variegated yarns that American companies are now making after they've realized how sought-after (but pricey!) Noro is among knitters.
A great example of good starter books: The Stitch 'n Bitch series
If you are looking into starting knitting, or to expand on your basic knitting skills, I highly recommend the Stitch 'n Bitch series. I learned crocheting from their Happy Hooker book and just recently got The Handbook for Knitters. Created by Debbie Stoller, these books are half technique, half patterns and they work as a great reference tool even after you have knitted everything in it.

The technique parts have very clear, visual illustrations. They have never made me scratch my head. All the vocabulary used in the book is covered in the glossary. Further, all of the books in the series have basic garments from socks and hats to shawls to practice on and then a couple more fanciful things thrown in (such as a little coat for a dachshund!). They are actually useful and look good, with very little knitting effort. What is more encouraging for a beginner than that!

Although I have been knitting for quite a while now, I hadn't found a simple hat pattern that I liked until I read this book--now I have my go-to, easily memorized pattern for whipping up a quick hat that also looks great and can be easily customized with cat ears and pom-poms if I feel like it.

The tone in the books is, despite the name, very friendly. Throughout the book there is this invisible friendly hand over your shoulder, telling you that it's OK if you screw up. We all do at some point! Here's how you can fix it. Have a glass of wine, relax--you got this.

Now I'm off to knit a Seahawks-themed hat with the basic hat pattern from that book. It will be ready for game day!

(P.S. Here is my post from 2011 if anyone wants to read a more detailed account of one book failing to help me get better at knitting)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

"It's the way families are, sometimes. A thing goes wrong and one knows how to fix it and years pass and--no one knows how to fix it." - Judd Mulvaney

I had bought this book years ago as an attempt to educate myself on Joyce Carol Oates. It sat untouched in my bookcase until recently, when I read an article in the New Yorker about something quite horrific that referenced this novel as a great fictional parallel. No better nudge to read the book finally than this!

And ugh. It is very good, but in the same way as the movies Dancer in the Dark and Lilya 4-Ever are very good. I don't think I can read it again, because it is very heartbreaking and unfair. Hmm. Maybe that is one reason for not having been enthusiastic about this book until now, because the jacket described it as "heartbreaking," which just makes me think of some silly over-the-top romantic sob story. But now I can't find a better word for it.

Trying not to spoil too much, here is the gist of the story in one paragraph: the Mulvaneys live in a small town on a farm, and are an epitome of a wonderful family--the parents banter with each other, everyone has cutesy nicknames, there are pets under foot wherever you turn, and all the four kids are strikingly different individuals. Everyone is so cute and gutsy! Then, a tragedy hits the family. And suddenly you are reading about good people who make really crappy choices for who knows what reasons, because certainly you cannot see the logic in their actions although on some level you have sympathy for them. And this goes on for decades. It's... heartbreaking.

Even in the end, where the story wraps up in a sort of a happy resolution, it is all tainted with the knowledge that these people wasted so many years being angry at each other, and it's time that can never be brought back. What's worse, it seems as if everyone can breathe freely only after one toxic force is removed from their lives--and he is not even the real bad guy in the story! (Or is he? I suppose he does become one.)

It's a tough read, for sure, but it has so much to offer beyond just the main story. In the beginning, Oates goes into ridiculous, almost boring lengths in describing the details of how each character looks and what their possessions look like (the pages of describing antiques that the mother collects, geez...) as if those were the only things that the characters and the author had actual control over. As the years progress, the details disappear not only from the style of storytelling, but from the lives of these people. Once the tragedy hits the family, all this materialism that they believe makes them who they are is stripped away, and all they have left is their actions that now define them more than their reputations based on school or work performance.

I think I need another Oates to read. Based on this, I'm not going to find a happy-go-lucky story in her repertoire to cleanse my palate with, am I?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

"The weak are meat the strong do eat." - Henry Goose in "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"

I watched the movie first, and to me it was nonsensical--not the least because of Tom Hanks's character's incomprehensible pidgin English. I wasn't sure, what the story tried to tell me: the same actors played different characters throughout different events in history (it seemed), and the main point appeared to be that every generation has a hero, who acts as a catalyst to save oppressed people. It seemed pretty heavy-handed, especially with some of the white actors doing a total yellow face act in a futuristic Korea. Brrrr!

I'm glad I read the book.

I'll do my best not to spoil any details. After I have written and published this, I might finally go and read what other people have thought of the novel--the novel unravels in weird ways, so I did not want my experience to be ruined by other interpretations. So I will definitely not be offended if you stop reading right here and go pick up the book yourself.

If you are unfamiliar with Cloud Atlas, it is laid out in multiple, abruptly ending stories spanning from the late 1800s onward until the heart of the story is reached in a post-apocalyptic Earth. Once the heart story is over, the book begins to go back through the previous stories, each continuing from where they were abruptly ended before.

Whereas the movie seemed to be partly a white guilt fantasy, the book offered two strong themes: tropes in fiction and the power of knowledge. Cloud Atlas is a prime example of metafiction: the movie concentrates heavily on reincarnations of individual characters and their more visible actions, but the book refers to characters reading, editing, or doubting what they read as real, because the story seems either too fantastical or too formulaic to believe. Only I, the reader, am real, as I am reading another person's adventures, whose adventures are read by another person, whose adventures are viewed on video by another person, and so on. The feeling is akin to reading The Neverending Story as a kid: who will read my story?

In various parts of the individual stories, the characters slyly imply that you are not reading anything more than calculated fiction. This is most evident in "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery", when a minor character, out of nowhere, scribbles exposition rules in fiction into his notebook--and then "Half Lives" follows the rules. This definitely made me want to revisit Joseph Campbell's stuff on hero myths to see, how well all these seemingly completely different characters did fulfill human storytelling tropes. This is why I didn't get the feeling of reincarnation as strongly from the novel as from the movie, although many of the characters share a similar birth mark. After all, the majority of them are fictional characters in the Cloud Atlas universe, some even more explicitly than others: one character, an editor, even ends up copyediting a manuscript he has become obsessed about--and that manuscript is the story we had just read before his!

I'm also a sucker for smart-assery in writing. A minor character refers to the structure of the entire novel within the story he appears in while writing down notes:

"One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each "shell" (the present) encased inside a nest of "shells" (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of "now" likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future." - Alberto Grimaldi's notebook in "Half lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"

The second big theme seemed to be power of knowledge: not only were these characters intrigued, even obsessed by what someone else in a previous generation had produced--whether fictional work, letters, music, videos--they often were the ones with secrets or skills that would help exposing a larger truth of the world they were living in and in some cases, even save lives.

At least three of the stories have characters explicitly discuss the power that knowledge can have in both societal success and its downfall. In some cases, the premonitions from one story are echoed in the reality of another, as seemingly unavoidable truths about human greed for power and the desire to subjugate others. Quite depressing, actually!

As a linguistic bonus, the evolution of English language and the final pidgin product in a world where written word is all but gone did not only make sense in an evolutionary sense, but was also easier to understand than when it was barked by Tom Hanks.

I am now ready to watch the movie again to see, what I missed the first time around. Also, I did hear that Cloud Atlas makes numerous references to characters and stories in Mitchell's other novels--guess I know what I'll be putting on hold at the library next.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
"Each of us has a private Austen."

My reading patterns are so predictable: once I read a novel I truly enjoy, I have to hunt down everything from the same author. I usually end up reading them in succession, too, although I try not to. If I read everything in one sitting, and they are all extremely good stories, what will I read after the next book that might turn out to be crappy? I should always have a novel waiting to restore my faith in good writing.

So, here we are. My second full-length Karen Joy Fowler.

The story seems simple because on the surface it is quick to read: five women and one man sit down to talk about Jane Austen's novels. Each chapter is a separate occasion, labeled by who is hosting and which novel is read.

Whereas I will give some time to revisit We Are All... to be able to experience at least some of the shock its twists and turns provided, Jane Austen I can see getting better and more complex with each rereading: the way Jane Austen Book Club is crafted is not simple at all. Each character is an Austen character, without heavy finger pointing or blatant copying of actions and quotables to give even the thickest reader a nudge. Their escapades, flashbacks, and interactions are clever references to Austen, while the story is completely enjoyable even if the reader has never read or heard of Jane Austen.

Adding to that, the story takes on the reflective nature of reading: we have six individuals discussing the same novels, but finding lovable traits in characters others think are appalling, or defending questionable actions their favorite characters commit. These discussions are intermingled with flashbacks to the the book club host's past, providing a framework for adulthood morals and ideas.

During this first read, I don't think I got it all: I'm not familiar with all of Austen's work (as much as I am a fan of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, I have never actually read it!) and now I feel like I should read them all just to be even better prepared for my second reading of this book. I'm sure I missed a lot of references.

As to my personal Austen favorite: Northanger Abbey.

It's a mockery of people who follow trends (Gothic literature in this case) and how obsessed impressionable young minds can get with reading fiction. Further, it is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking that a real jerk of a person will eventually turn out to be a lovable, misunderstood hero, just because that's what our tropes tell us to believe in fiction. Had this novel been written slightly later, it would have been about the dangers of believing that real life should play out like romantic comedies or Disney films.

This was the first book Austen wrote, but the last to get published--posthumously. I can just imagine her peddling this novel that criticizes fiction, and then going, Aw what the hell and writing Pride and Prejudice--where a real jerk of a person will eventually turn out to be a lovable, misunderstood hero.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Nexts


There was a time when I needed to read a) something simple that would be b) captivating enough even if I were in pain/bored/busy. Obviously, a tome with thirty different characters to keep track of by page five and changing milieus would not do.

I grabbed Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels through a happenstance: I went to work, and my colleague had something on his desk that said "Shades of Gray."

- You're not reading...?
- No. No no no. This is Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

As I had never heard of the guy, m'colleague filled me in. He provided the hook: "...and he has this series of Thursday Next books, where London is filled with literature detectives that hop into books to solve mysteries, and they have a lot of literary references." Sold!

The Eyre Affair

Thursday Next is a young woman who solves crimes related to works of literature in an alternate universe London. In the first installment of the series, Thursday needs to solve a crime involving Jane Eyre: a real baddie has been able to break into the world of a variety of classics, kidnapping or killing off characters to the horror of fan societies all over the country. It's basically like, "If you don't give me what I ask, Gandalf gets it next!" The horror is not about having the characters killed, but the idea of reading those books again without these characters in them. The stories would change completely!

Time bending, underground librarians, characters escaped into the real world, and... well, I'll get to the style later.

The next one continues where the previous ones left off: Lost in a Good Book has Thursday in media's limelight for being both a hero and a debaser of Jane Eyre for what she did to the story in order to solve the case in The Eyre Affair. Because hey, who doesn't want the ending of that story to be different?

Baddies unfortunately get to her, and via time bending technology they remove a very dear person to her from her life completely--by intervening when he was rescued as a small boy from certain death. Thursday is suddenly living an alternate life and needs to find her way back in time to undo what the baddies did so that her normal life comes back to her. It's just too bad she has a hard time convincing others around her that they are all a part of an alternate reality.

So, what's up with these books?

I've read two and a half of them so far, and they've taken a firm place in my Enjoyable, Inoffensive Fluff" collection, along with Janet Evanovich. Sometimes I actually wondered whether Evanovich is Fforde's nom de plume for writing hard-boiled detective stories across the Atlantic--the writing styles and subject matter are surprisingly similar! Both write a series about a no-nonsense woman protagonist who solves crimes, and spends a good deal of time thinking about a male colleague. She gets into trouble and is rescued by said handsome colleague, or gets herself out of trouble thanks to her wits.

When I say it's enjoyable fluff, I hope it's not offensive to any of the fans of this series: the literary references in the novels are delightful for any literature nerds or lit. majors (when Thursday goes to Kafka's Trial and uses its logic against the judges... hilarious), but the stories themselves are still just fun little mysteries that get solved at the end, with one Big Bad looking in the background throughout the series. You won't be finding too much of social commentary or mind bending revelations here beyond the importance of knowing your novels.

The writing is absolutely silly--I guess you wouldn't expect anything less from a British author on a quest to write a slightly silly novel. There are a lot of puns, and I guarantee you they are all eye-roll worthy. I mean, one of the main characters is called Jack Schitt, and you bet it will be played out to its full potential. That is just juvenile, really.

Sometimes, the stories get even embarrassingly sweet and naive. Although the main protagonist is a grown, independent woman with a good job and she obviously has sex, the most Fforde ever describes is basically a peck on the cheek. And poof, now she is pregnant!

Even Young Adult novels get steamier than this (and this is supposedly not a YA title). He drops hints at Thursday and whatshisname spending nights together, but it's the equivalent of a daytime soap showing a couple staring at each other, then the camera panning away to show a sunset while the sax plays, to then cut back to the couple getting ready to go to work. Why even bother? He's not showing nor telling. I would be completely fine with Thursday being an asexual being in these novels, but the blushing wink-wink-nudge-nudge treatment of Thursday's sex life just seems kind of awkward.

Thursday is a kind of an everywoman--a bit quirky, with plausible problems--which is why I don't find her or the other characters terribly interesting. Still, I continue to read these books because they are funny, punny, the action scenes are written well, and each story is a little pub quiz for lit. nerds. Recognize this quote? Recognize this reference? Recognize, that we just totally created an alternate reality for your favorite book?

These stories are perfect reading for lying in the sun without any other cares in the world than keeping your drink filled to the brim and the whodunnit. Or in front of the fireplace on a disgustingly damp winter day. Nothing to worry anyone's pretty head about. They are perfect also for when you do have other cares in the world, but want to be taken somewhere silly for a moment.

I bought two of these for my Kindle, but the next ones I am going to check out from the library: I don't think I'll ever need to reread them, but I do want to read them all once!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Unfinished: Vieras by Riikka Pulkkinen

With regret I am informing you that I did not finish Riikka Pulkkinen's newest novel, Vieras (Stranger/Unfamiliar). I haven't felt this... uncomfortable, I suppose, about closing a book without reading it through in ages.

I thoroughly enjoyed her first novel, Raja, (available in English as The Limit, translated by Seattle's own Lola Rogers!) but her second novel, Totta, (True in English, also with a translation by Lola Rogers) really hit all the sweet spots: an unreliable narrator, which is a rare treat and difficult to execute well; beautiful language without tripping into purple prose; new ways of describing things. Everything in that story, from the plot to the flashbacks to the narration was just fresh and alive, and the only reason I have been waiting this long to even try rereading it is because I don't own a copy and I want to forget it enough to recreate that first read experience again. Please check it out from your local bookstore. I love it to pieces.

So after that, I was obviously filled with anticipation.

Was she in a rush to produce a third novel? I was sitting there on the bus, reading this novel, baffled. (EDIT: I went and stalked Finnish bloggers who have written about this book and the consensus seems to be that this is Pulkkinen's best, and much better than the earlier ones. Obviously, I'm missing something.)

It is about a young woman pastor from an interracial background in Finland. She snaps within the first pages and steps onto a ferry to Sweden, from where she flies straight to New York. We quickly learn that her mother of unspecified ethnicity who died when she was young was from the US, but they never went there while she was alive. It's time to carpe the diem, I suppose.

Not a bad setting, especially as a bit of mystery is thrown in: she makes references to Yasmina, a girl whose diary she now possesses, and we see flashbacks to Yasmina learning Finnish through using the diary and sitting in the pews, but there is an element of dread. Something bad has happened to Yasmina by the time we become familiar with our main protagonist. Still so far so good.

[An aside. I don't know why suddenly (white) Finnish authors need to be participating in discussions about racism and prejudice, especially when it boils down to cliches and "racism is bad, mmmkay?" The motivation behind writing is perhaps noble, but often the result is just kind of black and white--what else would it be without extensive knowledge of a foreigner's personal experience of living in Finland? I now dread my next Finnish book waiting on the shelf, which is also a book about a Muslim girl in Finland, this time written by a white, cis middle aged man. I've heard it's good. Please let it be good. The previous "Muslims in Finland" book I read was very touching and brilliantly written--by a cis middle aged white woman--but I still felt a bit uncomfortable reading it.]

What really bugged me about this story was the protagonist's trip to New York: she has never been to the US or South America, but she fluently recognizes ethnicities on the streets (such as stating that a Colombian woman was doing this and that) as she marvels the melting pot. Wow, that's a pretty observant Finn. It would be believable if we were told why the protagonist is so apt at recognizing ethnicities simply by looking at them, but not really. Or is this again an unreliable narrator, and we find out on the very last pages that she just had delusions of grandeur and was faking it for the listeners? That in fact, she has no idea what she is talking about? That may be the only way I can finish reading this book--thinking that this is the reason for her behavior.

To top it off, the first few pages dealing with her arrival in New York are exhausting run-throughs of the city that sound more like name dropping and a tourist guide than anything else: we don't stay to dwell on the protagonist as in quick succession she takes the train from station X, then goes to Madison Square Garden, then to this or that location, sees someone rapping (OMG New York is so urban and ethnic), then is on the train again, sees another famous sight, someone is eating a hot dog there how quaint, then back onto the train, and...

Then she successfully rents a room on Manhattan. Without a credit or background check. With cash apparently? I almost gave up there, but figured... Let's see where this is going.

She goes to Chinatown to eat dumplings. OK... a timid Finnish priest who has barely been outside of the country before is suddenly by herself in Chinatown, ordering food that she says she has never eaten or seen before and has no idea what is in it. Right.

At this point, the novel sounds less of a story and more of a soap box for the author's possible personal experiences in the United States. It sounds like Pulkkinen has a lot of opinions about the United States, but instead of writing a column or an autobiography, she uses this priest. But it does not work: it's weird that while the priest is having a slice of pizza, a small remark about obesity in the US is thrown in and dwelled upon rather than the priest's own experience of eating a gigantic slice of pizza for the first time ever, especially considering her background with anorexia. It just sounds like these are not the priest's thoughts and experiences at all.

I started skipping pages to see if I would find something I can grab onto.

Leafed through probably 10 pages of pretty gimmicky typography and dancing.

Then, while she is spending an evening at her new American roommate's place she engages in a conversation with her in extremely poetic language and difficult vocabulary, and that's where my disbelief was no longer suspended, especially as little Yasmina's broken Finnish seemed to fluctuate from perfectly commanding vowel harmony to making vowel harmony mistakes. Why wasn't Yasmina given a voice in perfect Finnish if for fiction's sake our protagonist was given perfect English? Although her mother was American, it is made clear that her mom only spoke Finnish with the family to learn it well, except for some expletives.

Of course authors always use their protagonists to tell a story the authors want to tell, but this just did not seem genuine: the priest character seems like a voodoo doll that has absolutely no personality but who espouses suddenly political and cultural views out of the blue, or is a world traveler for no apparent reason. It just doesn't gel.

I don't know what happened here. I was not expecting to dislike this story as much as I did.

Those of you who have enjoyed it--why? Maybe I'm missing something crucial, or I had a bad day... I'm willing to give it another try.

Until then, I'm going to leaf through to see what happened with young Yasmina. That part of the mystery is still gripping.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Raw Spirit. In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks

Feat. a shameless plug for my favorite local bookstore
...This book will, inevitably, be about me, my family and my friends too, especially those friends who have been persuaded - with, you may not be surprised to learn, no great deal of body-part manipulation involved - to take part in this project. [...] This, let's face it, is a book about one of the hardest of hard liquors and for all this Let's be mature, I just drink it for the taste not the effect, honest, Two units a day only stuff... it is, basically, a legal, exclusive, relatively expensive but very pleasant way of getting out of your head.

The introduction to this book is pages long, detailing what it will and won't be about, and it is such a well written introduction that I almost missed getting onto my bus: luckily the bus driver stopped and asked if I wanted in, and smilingly commented about how I must be reading a really good book to be so enthralled with it. "It's a book about whisky!" I chirped, probably looking a bit too happy.

When a publisher contacts an author to write a book about Scottish whisky--research expenses included--I doubt anyone in their right mind would say no.

Neither did Banks, who took off to the task with an unsurprising number of friends offering their help.

The result is a book that by title sounds like a whisky connoisseur's delight, but is more of an autobiography of adulthood antics involving alcohol, book fairs and cons, fellow skiffy writers and editors; it's about Banks's love of cars as he drives down the wee roads toward distilleries, about nieces snickering when he falls off a dock unceremoniously. And puns. All of this is tied up in the love of whisky, or what particular whiskies evoke in the author.

In the end, that's what senses are: subjective. One man's dram is another man's nightmare from college. There cannot be a perfect drink--it is only perfect to you, with perfection built up from all the experiences surrounding the tasting. Although Banks's tastes lie on the more expensive side--which he sheepishly admits--he does warn dear readers not to let their wallet guide their taste buds, and to be on the lookout for a drink they truly like.

Raw Spirit is a down-to-earth narrative of having a good drink and the professionalism that goes into distilling one, peppered with loads of self-deprecating anecdotes and sudden politic outbursts (Banks was commissioned to begin research right at the start of the Iraqi war--he reserves the words "shite" and "fucking" pretty much exclusively for these little paragraphs).

And, as usual with Banks, the whole thing is just marvelously written. The only bits I noticed glazing over were parts where he's in love with his cars, simply because I could not care less.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

So I began to subscribe to the New Yorker...

Awwwwyisssss.  I have nothing smarter to say, because that is my exact
reaction whenever I get a new issue.
A perhaps little known fact for Americans: your magazine subscriptions are the envy of Finnish people. I can order one, or even two magazines and not go bankrupt. It's amazing!

After five years of just basking in this knowledge I took the leap and subscribed to the New Yorker because a) I wanted to have a magazine that I could spend time with reading articles and not just leafing through pretty images (which can be nice as well) and b) the articles I had read from it before were supremely well-written and interesting.

I'm nowadays almost exclusively a digital reader: we don't have the space for more books, buying books second-hand--which is what I used to do--will not give the authors any money anyway, and I'm too old to have my disk herniated by a Stephenson tome in my purse. Most of the time I buy digital versions, unless I'm pretty sure I'd like to lend my book to someone else.

Thus, I was disappointed with sampling a copy of the New Yorker on my Kindle.

I realized that my magazine reading habits are too set in stone: first, I want to leaf through the magazine. Then, based on how long articles look and how I'm feeling I'll start reading.

With the Kindle, I would just start reading any old article as browsing in this way was impossible, and what I thought would be a short bus-ride length of a read was actually a 5-page coverage, but there was no turning back. By the time I got to the end of it I felt I had not been mentally prepared well enough to take it in as it should have been. Had I known I was going to be reading a lengthy report I would have set it aside to read when I would have been less of a sleepy commuter.

Also, I'm a cheapskate. The digital subscription for the magazine was more expensive than the paper version, which really sealed the deal in addition to the general feeling of confusion while trying to navigate the digital version.

So, I got my paper version. And I'm glad, because already in the second issue I received I was greeted by perhaps the most glorious article I have yet read, "Operation Easter. The hunt for illegal egg collectors" and its accompanying picture of two guys in full camo in darkest of Britain's forests, looking for elusive "egg obsessives."

It's in the June 22, 2013 issue, and this article alone is worth the 99 cents a single downloaded issue costs via Amazon. Or whatever a trip to the library may cost to get your hands on this 10-page article of James Bondesque real-life intrigue and excitement, revolving around the obsession of the egg collectors.

Why is this article not a British crime series yet? You will laugh, you will cry, and you will rage reading about the thousands of eggs from protected birds, tucked away under floorboards with baby birds crudely blown out of them with a straw! And there is of course an authority figure, a bird fancier society, that condemns these acts but nevertheless keeps drawing unstable men (yes, they are all men) to their ranks. Also, a good British mystery would be nothing without a detective, whose obsession about the egg collectors gets questioned.

After reading that article I was just about ready to cancel my subscription simply because this one article had fulfilled all I was looking for when I subscribed to the magazine: superb writing and an interesting topic I had never come across before.

Since then, each issue has had at least one article that has made paying for it absolutely worth it; for that moment in a day, when I'm not focusing on or being distracted by anything else but this piece of paper in my hands, and being captivated by what the writer wants to make public.

Reading a magazine--not just this particular one--feels like a quick palate cleanser after reading Reddit for posts that are either closely or vaguely related to my daytime job or reading Twitter feeds of the same. It can take me away from a digital screen just for a second to rest my eyeballs on something else, and I get to learn stuff while resting my eyes!

No matter how much I have become a reader of digital goods, I apparently do need this small stack of papers to arrive once a week to touch and look at.

Friday, August 16, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Folwer

The About: Our narrator is Rosemary, the girl who was always talking: first babbling as a kid with her parents asking her to skip to the end and later, choosing artfully topics to talk meaninglessly about to steer clear from anything inconvenient and personal. That would be the two topics she does not want anyone new in her life to know about--her sister Fern who disappeared when Rosemary was young, and his brother who consequently ran away and never came back, leaving Rosemary and her parents to grieve for two. Rose's voice comes back when she starts to piece her childhood back together.

The Thoughts:

It is impossible to write about this lovely book without spoiling something that, according to my Kindle, happens about 40% into the book and then takes over the remaining 60%. Apparently it's revealed by the publisher blurb on the back of the book so... don't read it!

Any generic description on the other hand seems really contrived and I would probably not read a story based on what I just wrote above in the About. This is about a family, where... No. It's about sisters and sibling rival-- Ugh, not that, either. What does it mean to be a human... No no. In a world, where... Heck no.


In this story, sisters, brothers, and friends are not what they seem. Our narrator--or the narrator in times she talks about--is a confused young woman, whose voice we might not even want to trust.

Have I already said a million times how my favorite narrator is the rare unreliable narrator?

The story is grippingly sad, and what made it personally worse for me was that I had read the nonfiction books about similar cases that this fictional family encounters and which Rose quotes--and I loved those books. Even stranger, my favorite story from Karen Joy Fowler ever is a short story called "Faded Roses," and... if you know that story, and you have read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, you will now go, "Ahaaaaaaaaa, I get the connection." (And no, it's not the word "Rose"). It was just really weird to see Fowler's story unfold when I had read so much of what seemed to amount to source material for this.

When I first got the book, the title seemed silly to me. Something that David Eggers might ironically write. After reading the story, though, it changed its meaning without anybody really pointing out what the intention of the title is. It is a great title, and the best title to describe this story.

The story is great, and I had a hard time putting it down.

Stylistically, everything is in place. You can tell that Fowler is a long-time short story writer: her paragraphs are snappy, and I can just imagine the pain of cutting away fat that would pass as good writing but is not relevant to a Very Well Written Paragraph. There is nothing that is too much or too little. With some of the sentences I had to stop and reread them, just because they were so damned good.

Someone, please read this book and come talk with me about it.

EDIT: Usually I do not quote reviewers here, but these two do a better job than I could. (from

“This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family, an exploration of the meanings of memory, a study of what it means to be ‘human.’ In the end the book doesn’t just break your heart; it takes your heart and won’t give it back.”
—Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply and Stay Awake
“It really is impossible to do justice here in a blurb. This is a funny, stingingly smart, and heartbreaking book. Among other things, it’s about love, family, loss, and secrets; the acquisition and the loss of language. It’s also about two sisters, Rosemary and Fern, who are unlike any other sisters you’ve ever met before.”
—Kelly Link, author of Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters

Friday, July 26, 2013

Reading for the season: summer

Seasonal eating exists, but how about seasonal reading? Look no further than to Finland: people there love their libraries, and one genre is completely over-borrowed during summer months--in this section, shelves are empty.

Detective novels, or dekkari, as they are affectionately called. Other times of the year you might get your hands on Agatha Christies, John Grishams, Tom Clancys and Stieg Larssons, but not when it's hot outside.

The phenomenon is explained by the popularity and availability of summer cabins, where Finns tend to spend if not their weekends away from cities, their evenings away from nearby home. This cabin is usually at a lake, so a lot of time is spent sunbathing, swimming or just lying around on the dock (or if we are talking about my parents' cabin, on a massive, warm rock) keeping an eye on the kids. And what better way to spend time than have a good book by you!

But it can't be any old book. Remember, that you are soaking in the sun and your senses are possibly dulled by just having eaten a nice meal and taken a swim, and you smell like after sun lotion. But you still want to read... Something that won't require too much brain power but is still entertaining and keeps you reading.

Detective or crime novels. Heck yes.

I'm not aware of such trends in the US, maybe simply because I have not paid as much attention. Beyond gardening books in the spring, what genres match with seasons around these parts of the world?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Horsey to king prawn

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The About: Jernau Gurgeh is a game player. That's his skill: he is incredibly good at games. He's sort of a superstar, actually, which gets him into trouble: forced by an offer he cannot refuse, he travels years away to take part in a game that extends beyond the board; a game of savagery, moral outrage and good old political plotting; a game that will determine the future of an entire civilization.

Thoughts: I'll ramble a bit, because Iain Banks is dead and we can't read fresh words from him ever again.

Sci-fi is my favorite out of often sneeringly called "genre literature," mostly because of this slightly depressing reason: it seems that only by imagining humanity in way, way out in the future is it easy for us readers to engage in stories that do not lean on old tropes, especially when it comes to gender. Even fantasy still uses traditional gender roles no matter how fantastical the setting is.

In Banks's Culture, humans are advanced enough not to care about such details: they can change their biological sex at a whim. It's a society where biology does not determine skills or worth--or to be more accurate, where nobody expects a human being to have a certain skill set just because they have a certain set of sexual organs.

But that is not the only reason I have reread this novel after hearing of Banks's untimely death.

He was a good writer. Bear with me.

Not just once would one find me and my husband (if for some reason barging in...?) in the bathroom before bedtime, brushing teeth and quoting passages of amazing writing to each other, and just marveling at how good Banks is.

How to describe it? It's hard, because he is defined perhaps more by what he never does: his stories lack flowery prose and pretentious vocabulary that reeks of the author just browsing through a thesaurus and selecting something, anything, that would sound somehow more special than what actually would be appropriate; he only uses cliched metaphors if it is an intentional wink at the reader. He does not create a shroud of ambiguity for lack of being able to write beautifully with clarity.

I guess that's it. He knows usage--when and what is appropriate. All of his characters have a distinct voice without tropes such as fake accents or stuttering. Not once was I confused about who was talking.

Banks is also just damned funny. To describe a character he may use a single word that is refreshing, absolutely spot on, and that one word is all that is needed for great big belly laughs. He also gets away with naming his characters with the most ridiculous names that seem entirely plausible and not just sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and strained efforts at using, let's say, clicks from an African language to create an uncomfortable exoticism. I mean, Jernau Gurgeh? This is magic!

The only downside to reading Banks--whether it is his sci-fi or his non-sci-fi work--is that anything read immediately after feels like crap. I need to apologize in advance for anything I will write about The Skinner, because I can't move a page without righteous annoyance at word choices in an otherwise fine story. "He grinned a grin"?? Seriously, that's the best you can do? Iaiiiiiiiin!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vietnam - scarred

Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman

The About: A group of scientist-soldiers find a creature on their exploratory mission on another planet that offers telepathic skills between two people who are touching it at the same time. The mindbridge, as it will be dubbed, is also extremely lethal--it did cause a heart attack for the first person who touched it, which is the least gory way of it dealing with touchy-feely humans--and the scientists on Earth are willing to test its capabilities. In the quest to find more mindbridges to experiment on, humans stumble upon a community of ruthless aliens that kill without hesitation.

Thoughts: That description sounds pretty actiony, and sure enough--there is plenty of suspense and action in this novel. At the same time it's wonderfully literary, with changing modes of narrative (from a screenplay format to a report card to a psychologist's evaluation) that expose different aspects of the characters without needing to do lengthy flashbacks.

While I was reading the story, we were talking about the book at home. K. said, that like some of Haldeman's other novels, this also exudes his weariness of the horrors he saw in Vietnam during the war. And the more I thought of it and progressed in the story, the more evident this became. The mindbridge is an attempt of humans trying to connect with each other, while still trying to destroy other living beings for no other apparent reason than expanding territory. Or maybe it is not about getting connected but the idea of being the only ones to possess the mindbridge.

Haldeman is tired of the usual reasons for war, and it shows. Without being lecturing and hippy-like, the novel takes an unexpected turn at the end toward a radical idea of living in harmony that for individualistic humans is scary.

I kind of want to reread this already.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reboot, Part 2--the Analog Didgeridoo

It's 2013 and time for a reboot! Wait, where have I heard that before...

A lot has happened, meaning that nothing much has happened except less time spent at the computer or reading full length books, resulting in less blogging. I am sorely in need of writing practice, so I'm back.