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.