Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Loppuunkäsitelty by Anna-Leena Härkönen

"Are you here to arrest me?" I wanted to quip. But something about their faces made me shut up. Are you Kirsti Härkönen's sister? Yes. We have some very bad news. Now I know. The next question is useless. I ask it anyway.
"Did something happen?"

"Yes. We have some very bad news."
"What."
"She's dead."
My next thoughts are: It can't be true. Of course it's true. 
....
I talk to myself. I tell myself, you had no way of knowing. That you have to be smart about this. You couldn't have done anything. I decide that I'm not going to start blaming myself or asking what-ifs.

Blaming myself and what-ifs begin within an hour.

How do you praise a book about suicide without coming off as contrived or plain inappropriate? I'm honestly not sure. I've had this draft sitting around for a couple of months now, always waiting for an appropriate time to push it live--but such time never comes.

But now we're here, because Loppuunkäsitelty* is a tiny, important book about grief.

In it, Finnish novelist Anna-Leena Härkönen reveals her and her immediate relatives' reactions to her sister's suicide from the moment the police arrive at the doorstep to a year later, when the siblings try to figure out out an appropriate way to remember the day their sister died.

It's an amazingly touching book, yet never sappy. The reader is bombarded with emotions: the fury at the sister for leaving the rest of them to deal with the aftermath ("If I saw you walking down the street right now I'd kill you," Härkönen writes); the hollow sadness upon realizing that she's not in a dream, and that she doesn't know exactly how to answer the question, "How many sisters or brothers do you have?" without making it awkward while staying honest. Härkönen makes morbid jokes and laughs hysterically.

Then there's the guilt: as soon as Härkönen heard the news she created a folder on her computer. And began to write. Does this mean she's selfish by using a horrendous tragedy to fish for a publishing deal, for money? Or is it the only meaningful outlet she has for all the overwhelming questions that have taken over her life? Not having any definite answers has become her uncomfortable reality.

Härkönen is not out to clear her sister's name or make her into an untouchable saint. The book is about how one person reacts when something this terrifying happens. It gives permission for other people to express a range of emtions, instead of acting in ways that others have decided socially acceptable for a situation they have never encountered.

Especially consoling is the way Härkönen tries to later recall events without looking back at her notes. She swears the police informed her about her sister's death in one way, but she's wrong--the readers have seen her notes from Day 1. Then one day she has a hard time remembering any details correctly. It's how pain marches on: its weight may feel too hard to handle, but there will be a day when it's subsided, at least a little.

(*The title literally means "done with"--when no more opinions or facts can be presented and the case is closed. It's wishful thinking on Härkönen's part, which she admits.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lisey's Story by Stephen King

The grin on his face was still there but it was getting smaller, fading until it was little more than a quirk and one shallow dimple. Water, meanwhile, had risen in his eyes. The lost scared voice tried to call its warning again and she ignored it. This was a cutting party now. [...] Standing in the kitchen door and waiting for him to come back, she can't remember all the things she said, only that each one was a little worse, a little more perfectly tailored to hurt. [...] The silence was enormous and she realized she wanted to go back and had no idea how to do it. The simplest thing--I love you anyway, Scott, come to bed--will not occur to her until later.  Not until after the bool.

It's been over a decade since I actively gorged on King, and when I recently read Under the Dome I was reminded of what a great storyteller he is.

Lisey's Story story may not be among my favorites when it comes to style, but it brought back how visceral reading King can get: there's an unknown, fantastical evil lurking in the corners--either a crazed madman or our own, appalling behavior--eluding our eyes, overwhelming the reader with discomfort equivalent to wearing terry cloth clothes that are a size too small. Seriously. He's amazing with making you feel uncomfortable.

But Lisey's Story does not just make you shift in your seat, nor is it just fantasy, or horror. It doesn't feel too far-fetched to read as a manual to understanding a loved one's mental illness. Although in the novel all the crazy stuff is actually real, it's an excellent display of  how crazy stuff feels that real to the person experiencing it. The more Lisey begins to use words that his late husband had concocted, the crazier she now sounds--and suddenly she and her husband are both in the reader's head, and there I am, thinking their crazy thoughts and understanding their made-up words.

Beyond that, Lisey's Story digs into the importance of memories, even when we do our best to suppress the really bad ones because hey, those are memories about events that made us who we are. When the dead speak to us, there are no ghosts hovering around; they speak to us with words we may have wanted to shut out in the past, but now we are ready to listen.

Although Lisey's Story may at first glance appear a thriller where a widow tries to shake a crazed fan off her tail, it really is more about the complexity of love, and what you may need to endure through sickness and in health.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

They were invariably immigrant men, and she told herself that in treating them with respect and dignity she was separating herself from the immense sea of indifferently racist Australians out there […] But she felt neither courtesy nor respect at this moment. Fuck him, she thought sourly, ignorant Muslim pig. 

The namesake of the novel occurs at a seemingly innocent Australian BBQ that reads like Rupert Murdoch's nightmare: the hosts are Hector, who is Greek, and his Indian wife Aisha, and their guests include more Greeks, Australian aborigines turned Muslim, and gay kids all frolicking together. And of course, a super drunk white Australian, whose kid is a total brat and ends up misbehaving--and that's when the 4-year-old is slapped by another guest, an adult. 

Everyone slinks away, either in rage or ashamed, or just wanting to make sure they can't be interpreted as having taken sides. As the story progresses, we skip from one character to another to see how they navigate through family loyalties and friendships, hurtling toward the impending day at the court. 

The novel is cleverly constructed, and although on the surface it certainly makes you think about the issue at hand--slapping a child-- it addresses different forms of bodily and mental abuse, and the traditions of how we end up accepting some of them. All the characters in the novel, regardless of age, are either using drugs or copious amounts of alcohol, or they did in their past that they now secretly pine for or feel superior to. They all have pretty lousy sex, too. Then, they obsess about their looks--a lot of words are spent on describing every nook and cranny in the characters' bodies, up to their toe hairs. They're dolls, going through the motions that their forefathers set for them. 

This is also the one part that I'm not too comfortable with, because I can't tell whether sometimes it's the characters being simplistic or the writing. At one point, one character describes two women the same way on the same page: first, a random woman as "The blonde one was a looker," and then a paragraph later, describing a police officer as "She was blonde, a looker." 

Racism seeps in, too. At the sight of conflict, everyone becomes a negative representation of their ethnicity to others. The characters believe their decisions are made purely from logical standpoints, but they all have a chip on their shoulder that's been waiting to be spoken out loud. Drunk Gary is not just Drunk Gary--he's a fucking Australian. Bilal is not just Bilal--he's an Aborigine who is expected to abuse his body with drugs and alcohol and go back into bars for a favor, although that's a lifestyle he struggled to leave behind ages ago. Aisha is not just Aisha for Hector's family--she's that Indian slut.

And again, there's slight discomfort with the descriptions: although the novel itself addresses racial issues, some of the non-white characters are described in food terms, a treatment white characters usually don't get: "His unblemished olive skin was tanned rich chocolate brown." Two food items in one! I have yet to see a white character described as having "mozzarella undertones." White characters are just blonde.

The novel poses interesting questions about what it means to protect the weak, and who the weak really are. And just as you think you have formed your opinion about the infamous slap, you find out more about the characters involved that might change your mind yet again. That's the type of novels I like--where you're not lulled into comfort but instead, you need to question your opinions.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen

spl.org
A friend recommended this book, slightly sheepishly: it's nothing special, you know, but it's really cute.

A Street Cat Named Bob may not be a mind-blowing masterpiece, but does everything need to be? Reading Bob can only make you a better person. It's completely devoid of cynicism, although the odds are stacked against James, who was a recovering heroin addict busking for money on the streets and living in a housing program flat for homeless in London when he met the cat.

When Bob wanders into his life, James finds a new motivation for himself to get clean: not only was he now responsible for a little life, he didn't want his new cat buddy even to see the crappy side of his own life. He truly wanted to become a better person for this cat.

How He Saved My Life is not an exaggeration. Sure, Bob wasn't resuscitating this guy in the street corner, but thanks to him, James first started earning more money through busking (suddenly coins were flowing for a man who had a cat on him!), and once he got a bit more money and confidence, he was able to buy a stack of the equivalent of Real Change and become a newspaper seller for the homeless organization in London, which gave him a steadier income. Then, people began to approach him because of the videos or pictures they'd seen of James and Bob on the web.

That's how he got this book deal, too.

This little story entertained the hell out of me. Like with Steve O's memoir, James approaches his own downfalls with refreshing honesty that is not wrapped up in disingenuous humility. Although it would be easy to read James's story as classic instructions for just pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and then everything will be peachy if you only try hard enough, James readily acknowledges that he'd already done what he could have under his circumstances, and without this deus ex machina of Bob appearing at his doorstep one day, who knows where he'd be.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Under the Dome by Stephen King

wikipedia.org
[When Big Jim, concerned for his son's mental health, asks him a yes/no question:]

Junior shook his head slowly back and forth, but his eyes stayed in exactly the same place while he did it--pinned on his father's face. It was a little eerie.

What simple, short sentences, but they evoke a truly creepy image. And then King downplays the creepiness with the "a little eerie." When I read this description I went from feeling slightly disturbed to giggling. I had forgotten what a good writer King is.

When the TV series Under the Dome began airing, I was excited: no more Langolieers, please--in this day and age, plentiful money must be funneled into a King project, right?

We watched the show halfway through the second season, increasingly frustrated: like Lost, it introduced more questions than resolutions, all seemingly designed to ensure that the viewer will never stop to think. "That makes no sense! Why is he suddenly behaving so-- Ooh, a shiny new thing!"

I had to read the book to find out whether the original material was as nonsensical as what I was watching.

Within the first pages, some important characters from the TV show are killed. OK... Well, I knew then what won't happen in the book.

Although the book has a fantastical setting of a small town trapped under an invisible dome, the novel only uses the dome as a backdrop for looking into the nastier aspects of human behavior. To me, the overarching theme was bullying and exerting power onto others, whether the characters had been on the receiving end of bullying or dishing it out on a school yard, during war times, or in small, local settings politically. In the TV show, this is sort of hinted at, but the larger discussion of people manipulating other people for personal gains is overshadowed by Shiny Fantasy Objects and Portals.

If you're hooked on the TV show, feel free to read the book: there will be no spoilers because hardly anything is the same: Barbie is not some hitman who just happened to be in town when the dome came down--he's a cook at the local restaurant and everyone knows him, although he's not a local; Norrie is not a kid with lesbian parents who just happened to be passing through--she's lived in Chester's Mill all her life; Sam Verdeaux is not related to anybody else, nor does he have a shady past. He's just the town drunk and idiot, not a dashingly handsome, yet troubled man. Julia Shumway is indeed the town paper's editor, but she has no missing husband.

I do want to wait until the show is over to see what they do with the final episodes: the ending of the novel is terrifyingly cruel, but will the show writers go there? I can't wait for the resulting CG extravaganza!

I'm glad I read Under the Dome. I haven't read a single Stephen King novel in probably a decade, so I had forgotten what a great writer he is. He often gets flack for writing horror, or fantasy, and is not taken nearly as seriously as other, similarly prolific writers. But his stories are well-crafted, and like with my favorite authors, I would stop to reread sentences simply because they were so good.

I especially get a kick out of King busting through the fourth wall, which happens a lot in Under the Dome. The narrator describes the dome coming down from a variety of perspectives, including a truck driver and a woodchuck, and ends the description with this:

We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester's Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose. He's sitting up and staring at Dale Barbara in utter bewilderment.

Although such a display of smart-assery, I still love these sections: they're a great way to condense events and make characters seem more realistically connected to the world and other people around them.

I have some other books from the library I need to finish reading, but I'll put another Stephen King book on hold. Maybe it's time to reread IT.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Independent People by Halldór Laxness, or, The Digital Reading Experience

I've tried to write about Independent People since I read it in early September, but every time I'd draft a paragraph I veered to blathering about the reading experience, forgetting about the story itself. I thought I'd wait to forget about this pesky interference of the vessel on which the story was brought to me, but it's no use. So here we go.

I read both printed and digital books. I buy all my knitting books in paper form, because I need to browse back and forth quickly, or I want to have all the instructions available at one glance; I buy printed novels if I know I'll end up lending or gifting them. I buy new books from authors I know I'm going to reread again and again. I buy books from second hand stores, although it pains me that authors are not getting anything for my purchase. 

I like my Kindle, too. I've bought a bunch of novels in digital versions that I already own in paperback, simply because I don't want to drag ginormous books with me during my commute, or when I'm traveling abroad because I like traveling light. And, most of the time, I buy printed books from where I'm visiting, so I want to save that space in my luggage.

Interestingly enough, if I'm at all skeptical about whether I'll like the story or not, I'll buy it digitally, because I don't want something potentially disappointing littering my shelves. Most of the time, though, I place a hold at the library both for the printed and the digital version, and see which one is available first. 

In addition to promoting clutter-free shelves, digital reading offers an experience printed books cannot: a nearly complete lack of spoilers. I love it. I don't pay attention to cover art because I just navigate to the Buy button, click it, and start reading; I don't get to flip the book over to read the blurb in the back. My mind is not primed for the story based on how good the graphics on the cover are, or the spoilers provided in the back cover. This is why I was so upset when I finally saw Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the bookstore: both the front and back cover give the twist in the novel away, and it's a twist that made me think about larger, ethical questions, because the author had so cleverly made me empathize with a situation by not telling me, the reader, the whole truth. It was great, and I felt so bad for any readers who wouldn't be able to experience the same.

Reading digitally would have been a New Critic's dream: you turn the book on and start reading from page one, never seeing a biography for the author, or a spoilery blurb, or choice quotes handpicked by the publisher to praise the novel that will prime you to look for those positive features in the novel yourself. You shove the author aside and just let the story come to you. Usually, I also skip any introductions written by other authors--I'll make up my own mind first, thank you very much. 

This unadulterated reading experience can be kind of scary, too: I have to actually form my own opinions about the story! What if I had given up on Independent People because it was dragging on in the beginning, and then later someone had pointed out that the author won a Nobel price for the story? Obviously, I'd be a real dumbo to admit that I didn't like a novel that was so widely revered. I just wasn't reading it right. Yeah, that's it! Let me give it another go and make sure I now understand why I have to like and appreciate it. 

Digital reading could work as a blind literary taste test. It might also help people get over some hangups about cover art (that's me) or about certain genres. What if I just give you a book and tell you to read it because it's good--do you really need to know whether it's fantasy or not, or whether it's true crime, because you can't stand those genres? Good stories should transcend their genres, and people should feel free to toss a book into the corner because they hate they way it's written, or because of the ideas it represents, not because they are categorized under a narrow label. 

But onto Independent People. A friend of mine wrote a short recommendation for it, and because I was about to leave for Iceland I downloaded it onto my Kindle. I read absolutely nothing about the story beforehand. 

And it was a weird reading experience, but in an eye-opening way.

I didn't know beforehand that it was an epic.
I didn't know that it wasn't written last year; it was written in the 1950s. 

So I started reading, becoming increasingly more puzzled.

A bunch of people were introduced, and I had no idea who was the main character. I almost gave up because the first 50 pages or so seemed to be constantly building up for something, but nothing was getting resolved--but curiously, that was the reason why I eventually stuck around. The story seemed so... large. Just as I had gotten to know one character a bit, a new chapter began and someone else was now introduced. Were they all going to meet at some point? How were they related? And what's all this stuff about politics? I wanted to know where it was all going.

Once I was on a roll, I decided to look up the author. 

Finding the story's publishing date and its genre of course colored my perception of the story. Whereas earlier I'd thought that the author was putting himself in the shoes of Icelanders from the days of yore, and I wondered what Icelandic people actually thought of his portrayal of their history, I now realized that the author--and his parents and grandparents--had more or less lived in the times he wrote about. Ah, so he's a reliable source, then, writing to his peers who had just come out of the book's historical events in the past decades. The intended audience was now completely different than what I had expected.  

I know, I know; who cares what the author's intent is, right? But stories are written with certain audiences in mind, and if you are supposed to write about what you know, how can we not take intent into account? 

Although I enjoy the blind taste test reading immensely, I still think it's often important to be aware of the historical backdrop for a story, or the author and his or her intent, although enjoying a story is by no means dependent on these factors. Learning more about Halldór Laxness and the novel helped me to understand its significance in its cultural setting. The experience is kind of like reading Heinlein: whenever I find myself annoyed by some of the social conventions in his novels, I check the publishing date and go, ah yes, he wrote this in the frigging 1940s. They're still annoying conventions, but I understand them better in their context. 

As to Independent People... I ended up loving it. The protagonist we follow the longest, Bjartur, is lovable, yet infuriating: to him, independence means a herd of sheep, a small crop to live on, and never being in debt to anyone. He leaves a wake of tragedy behind him because of his unwillingness to deviate from his personal morals, mostly in his relationships. When his daughter, Asta, is old enough, the story switches to following her being trapped in the crop to make sure that Bjartur's dream of independent living comes true.

It's an absolutely heartbreaking story, yet at the same time a fascinating insight into Iceland and its cultural and political background. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Maihinnousu by Riikka Ala-Harja

EDIT: I wrote this entry before learning about the media circus that went on around the novel, and for good or bad, I now have a slightly different view on the story setting. The below is what happens when I do my best not to know anything in advance about the story I'm going to read. 

This may be a language, cultural, and personal issue, but whenever I read a book written in Finnish where the main character either goes to spend time with people who are not not raised or lived long in Finland--but the author is--I scrutinize the book more for cultural inaccuracies. Usually I don't even look hard for them: it's really hard to write about experiences you've never encountered in an authentic voice.

So yeah. I first checked the back cover of Maihinnousu, and I put the book back on the shelf because the novel was described as a story "[...] about a French woman, who is about to lose both her husband and her child." Great, the story will be dotted with stereotypical cues about Frenchness. She'll probably start her day with cafe au lait and walk around in a beret, carrying a baguette.

But then I forgot about reading the blurb, and grabbed the book about a month later because it looked conveniently short for me to read in between other stuff.

At first, I thought Maihinnousu is about a linguistically gifted Finnish woman who was giving tours in Normandy in German, English, and French and building a new life there. When it turns out that she's French, I had a hard time to adjust. There was nothing French about her.
But then again--does there need to be? Ala-Harja just lets her character be. I don't know if it's possible to separate the individual from the cultural background completely, but I was happy to see Ala-Harja not resort to stereotyping as ways of making her readers get where the character was from.

And perhaps that's the genius behind this gut-wrenching, short novel: it's not a story about a Frenchwoman who has to make tough decisions, or a woman living in France needing to make tough decisions; it's about a human who is in a crappy situation and needs to emerge out of it as a winner. It's a universal story.

Then, it also made sense for Ala-Harja to place her story in Normandy: in Finnish, the word used for invasion in the term "invasion of Normandy," maihinnousu, can also mean getting off a boat, or getting onto solid ground after being on the sea. Throughout the novel the character's daily job of making history more personal for tourists is juxtaposed with her own life, where her daughter's body is quite literally invaded by cancer, her marriage has been invaded by another woman, and her home is invaded by a man who does not love her anymore. She is on a mission to find solid ground in a stormy sea.

The protagonist, whose name I had to look up specifically when I wrote this because it hardly ever comes up in the novel, is also a bit of an unreliable narrator: when she talks about her husband having an affair, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that she was just making it all up. She had never actually seen him together with the other woman, and she was constantly coming up with the wildest scenarios about them. Was there a chance that he had fallen out of love because she was a paranoid loony? He barely gives voice for himself in the novel; most of the time the husband is either physically absent or refusing to talk. It makes for an interesting dynamic.

When the beaches of Normandy are now filled with happy tourists and stone skipping locals it gives the reader comfort; things will not remain the same. Things can get better.

Popula by Pirjo Hassinen

This simple, yet funny and heartbreaking book on populist politics and what it can mean to the common citizen was a quick read. In it, three characters become entangled both with the lives of each other and with the populist party Popula, while all the while feeling alienated from people around them. 

Painter Pirjo defames a modern flower painting at the museum and becomes a pawn for the populist party Popula, representing the everyday Finn who no longer has patience for tax funds being spent on art that nobody understands, created by a hoity-toity ruling class. 

Her adult daughter Rita is embarrassed by her mother's antics, but she has her own problems: she slowly becomes an outsider in her family when her husband sides with the adopted daughter of his and his dead wife after Rita makes a racially charged comment.

Pirjo's neighbor and occasional drinking buddy Perttu loses his job as a bouncer when he throws a man on the ground after a day of brewing hatred within him toward authorities: his crime earlier in the day had been to wash his mother's room mate at the Alzheimer patient care home where this old lady had been left to fester in her own feces. He's hired as a bodyguard for the Popula party's leader because he fits the story of a wronged everyday man perfectly (and looks like a blonde viking), but he is unable to stop the party leader from being filmed getting drunk with a bunch of neonazis, praising their efforts.

Each character first blames other people for their misgivings, whether it is neighbors, former teachers, spouses, or police officers. When they take a moment to understand how much they are actually connected to other people in the society around them and how their actions can cause an avalanche--in both good and bad--their feelings of alienation begin to subside. 

It would have been easy to make fun of all these characters for becoming enamored by populist, hyperbolic messages regarding immigration, unemployment, or government officials, but instead, Hassinen empathizes with the everyman. It's understandable that the last person we look to blame is ourselves--it's just human nature. Unfortunately, this tendency can be manipulated easily for political gains. Popula urges in between the lines people to take responsibility for our own lives, because if the crutch we have been relying on falls from underneath us, who can we blame then?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I slightly dreaded picking this one up, and not because I was told that it's the scariest of the Flynns; how disappointed would I be if the narration style was exactly the same as the two previous ones I'd read?

No fear! Except, well. Plenty of fear. 

Sharp Objects follows a more traditional, linear storytelling compared to the changing narrators and points in time of both Gone Girl and Dark Places. It is also creepy and unsettling. I'm reading these stories, thinking, man, when was the last time I read a horror story that would make me worry about nightmares? You know, not the hack and slash type, but a story that leaves a feeling of ever present dread under your skin. Here it is!

Sharp Objects proves that Flynn is at home with horror along with the suspense she craftily weaves in Gone Girl and Dark Places. Our one and only narrator is a reporter and a cutter Camille, who arrives at the small town she grew up in to cover a potential serial killer incident before it hits national news. This is her big career break! One girl is already murdered, and now another is missing. While Camille attempts to create a hard-hitting story about a small town that doesn't have the resources to resolve a case, or even worse, a small town that may be hiding something, she becomes involuntarily involved in solving the murders. 

The atmosphere in this story is truly unsettling: even when nothing terrifying is happening, evil just oozes off the pages. I was waiting for something bad to happen at any moment, and when Camille herself begins to tell the readers she feels the same way, the overhanging feeling of inevitable horrors becomes oppressive. Even a small word at the dinner table carries unbearable weight, just as you're ready to scoff at the elements reminiscent of Psycho's mother issues

There is the identifiable threat--the serial killer loose in the town. But there is also an evil lurking in the everyday life of the housewives, the high school girls, the football players, the outsiders. It's been in the making for generations: evils are accepted as just hazing and having a good time. When the local police grew up in this environment, how can they intervene or even recognize where evil brews? Camille remembers being a victim of disturbing events back in high school, but she never thought it was actually wrong--not even when an outsider confronts her about it. She still seems to insist that her experiences were nothing out of the ordinary. 

That's where Sharp Objects gets smart. How do you break out of a vicious cycle of any behavior when what you are engaging in is considered the norm by people in your close, physical proximity? (Because Camille certainly does not mentally relate to any of the people she left behind.) Although Camille provides us with the chronology of her cutting experiences, the further we read the clearer it becomes: there is no one major, defining event in a disturbed individual's life that makes her what she is; it's the everyday events, just disturbing enough to cause ripples that eventually build up to a large wave, forming an unrecognizable mass of burden that becomes too much for an individual to handle. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

This is an almost embarrassing admission to my bad reading habits: if I get into one author, I'll abandon anything else I'm doing and I'll read All the Books. Gone Girl was a maddening novel, and I didn't want to stop feeling infuriated at the characters--so I bought Dark Places straight away and read it in the next couple of days. I couldn't begin this entry with a quote from the book or a picture of my actual copy (although you can see it resting under the Jeeves book in the previous entry) because I already gave it to a friend to read. Apparently, not only did I read all of Flynn's novels within a couple of weeks, but I became a Flynn spokesperson overnight.

This binge reading also proved to me that it's a stupid idea to read everything from one author in one sitting. I wanted Dark Places to give me exactly the same as Gone Girl did, and when it happened, I was disappointed: what, is Flynn some one trick pony? Totally unfair toward the author.

The one trick is this: both Dark Places and Gone Girl use the same style of narration. We have multiple narrators or view points, and we also have one narrator in the present tense, and another in the past. Both of them are, in their own way, leading up to an event: a murder. In Dark Places, it's a heinous massacre that a sister is attempting to solve years later, while her brother is serving time for murdering her other siblings and mother in some Satanic ritual. The present is attempting to find out who really did it, whereas the past is hurtling inevitably toward the murder, with a countdown ticking.  And we the readers simply do not know what to believe. I'm so smitten with this style of narrative and the unreliability of the narrators, but at the same time, I wish I had either read Sharp Objects first, or put some more time between these books. I probably would have appreciated Dark Places much more that way, instead of now having this feeling of didn't we just do this thing? The thing I love so much!

Still, Dark Places is not a copy of Gone Girl. Dark Places is about good people who get into a really bad mess or hang out with the wrong crowd, at a time when small towns believed that any teenager wearing black was sacrificing babies to Satan in the woods. In Gone Girl, you just kind of hate everyone, and it's so satisfying to hate them, whereas in Dark Places you are worried about how small town mentality, mass hysteria, and rumors can ruin people.

They are both about evil incarnations, but in different ways. Fear not; there's blood in both of them. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse


It is impossible to be unhappy while reading the adventures of Jeeves and Wooster. And I've tried. - Christopher Buckley (lifted straight from the book cover)

Everyone needs a little pick-up from doom and gloom every now and then, and Jeeves and Wooster are there for you for your merriment.

The TV series starring Hugh Laurie as the upper-class half-wit Wooster and Stephen Fry as his gentleman's gentleman introduced me to Wodehouse in my early teens, but despite loving the show madly I didn't get around to reading the stories until this summer. Because I bought these books, they've unfortunately gotten trampled by furiously reading any books I've needed to return to the library. 

The Jeeves stories remind me of Austin: they involve someone wanting to get married or forced to get married, but this time from the point of view of an early 1900s dumbo who'd rather not settle down. Wooster's schemes usually get him into such trouble that his man servant Jeeves is summoned to rescue him. Add some ridiculous slapstick and silliness, and that's Jeeves and Wooster. 

In this particular one, Wooster tries to help his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, a nerdy newt collector, marry Madeleine Basset, a doe-eyed dreamer who'd marry Wooster if no one else were around. Hence Wooster's dedication in this mission. 

Unfortunately, Madeleine has put Gussie on a vegetarian diet, which leads him to elope with a cook who makes a mean ham sandwich. 

The sub-silliness involves an African artifact that family members are using as a pawn in their own schemes, whether it is to get a vicarage, convince others that Wooster is a klepto, or to unify reluctant family members. 

My favorite parts involve the mild-mannered Jeeves figuratively kicking Wooster's butt: as a hired hand he cannot talk back or go rogue, unless the situation is so dire that only his help will do or when Wooster's relatives of more influence borrow him on their missions that usually make more sense than what Wooster was planning to do. 

In this story, Jeeves absolutely despises Wooster's new hat: a bright blue number with a pink feather on it, straight from the Swiss Alps. When Jeeves pretends to be a police officer and arrest Wooster, supposedly a known criminal, he tells the victim that among the Scotland Yard, Wooster is known as "Alpine Joe", the man who will go nowhere without his silly alpine hat. When the victim wonders why on Earth this ghastly criminal hasn't come up with a better disguise, Jeeves retorts, "You would indeed [think he'd have the sense], sir, but the mental processes of a man like that are hard to follow." Zing! 

I'd like to quote more because so many lines and situations made me laugh out loud, but all of them are at their best wrapped in their context. It's a short book! Read it!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. [...] And what's inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I've asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

The mood set by the opening paragraphs was ominous enough, although these words were curiously vague. After reading the novel I went back to look at the first pages and realized that this was the best way to begin such an insane story of mystery, manipulation, and love gone awry.

Gone Girl is an unfortunate novel to write about: all the best bits would require me to spoil the twists and turns completely, and those were so much fun to discover while reading! So instead, I'll say this: Gone Girl is a dark novel. You might be startled at how violently you want to shake the main characters. It's a story designed to frustrate readers, but in a good way. I swear!

Gone Girl is told from two alternating view points: Nick's story begins on the day Amy disappears; Amy's story unfolds through journal entries, starting seven years earlier when the two met for the first time. Just when you think you have both of them sussed out, the story grabs you by your head, twisting it until your neck cracks. And not just once! It's a nauseating reading experience, and I loved it. Once, I felt smug for having figured out a detail well before I thought anyone should have, but I turned out to be wrong. Pretty humbling, that. Later, turns out I was actually right! Kind of right, anyway. At least in the ballpark.

Gone Girl reminded me of Jodi Picoult's The Pact: A Love Story: both have two narrations within the main story, filling in gaps and misleading the reader who does not know whom to believe anymore. Both novels are critical of modern humans learning what real love is supposed to be like from romantic movies or stories, to the detriment of their own relationships. Gone Girl goes further to examine the terrors when people cannot uphold the Fun Pixie Girl and Fun Romantic Hero Man roles they have adopted to attract one another.

I'm 27th in line for the hold of Flynn's other books at the library. It was nearly impossible not to just push a couple of buttons on my Kindle to buy and download them as soon as I put Gone Girl down at bed time so that I could continue to dwell in Flynn's wonderfully dark worlds. I'm not quite there yet with immediate book gratification, so I wait.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Coreyography: A Memoir by Corey Feldman

Biographies are fascinating, and the ones I've read can be divided into two pretty rough camps: the ones that are written either by a professional writer (Tina Fey's excellent Bossypants comes to mind) or with a professional writer's help, and the ones where nobody apparently dared to suggest edits or hire a good ghost writer and let the personality just ramble on.

The latter cases are especially sad when there is an important story to tell. Bob Santos's Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs is about this superman of a community organizer's amazing struggles and achievements in Seattle's International District, but it has so many inappropriately placed dad jokes and jumping from one thing to another that the actual fascinating story within disappears in the noise. It's a tiny book but it took me forever to read, because I kept on losing the plot.

Coreyography had a similar feel to it. I mean, we start off with a pun when the book itself is frigging bleak, right?

Feldman set out to write this book to expose the child abuse many child stars are subjected to in Hollywood. The abuse was most likely the main culprit of his good friend Corey Haim's spiraling into drugs and eventual early death. That's a brave story to come forward with. Not only that, Feldman is at the same time out to clear Michael Jackson's name--the man who was publicly accused of child molestation while the Hollywood big shots working with children have been getting away with it. This is a big deal.

There's just something about the way the book is structured and written that I kept on being distracted by how things were told instead of what I was told. It also felt like there were either two writers hired to help out with this book, or that a copy editor didn't make or wasn't allowed to make other changes beyond typos and grammar and let the book bounce from style to style (although the number of "he gave Ron and I a call..." structures made me wonder if a copy editor was involved at all).

For a few chapters, Feldman's voice waxes super poetic in present tense about his childhood and early acting years, and I think, This sounds so fake for speaking from a kid's perspective. This is how Chapter 1 begins:

I am three years old, sitting at the small round breakfast table in our tiny kitchen, eyeing a half-open box of cereal. There's a toy surprise buried somewhere inside, and I'm itching for it. I bounce my feet impatiently atop the wooden rung of my chair, feel a cold dribble of milk slip across my lip and down my chin. As consumed as I am by that prize, however, I sense that there is something different, something even more exciting, about today. It's still early morning in the San Fernando Valley--the sun is streaming through the little stained glass window above the door frame, casting a rainbow of shadows across the linoleum floor of the foyer--but the whole house is already buzzing with energy.

In short, this is describing a kid drooling at the breakfast table and picking up on the excited energy in the household, but it's made ridiculously poetic.

In similar purple prose bits he refers to his friend Corey Haim as "Corey." Then suddenly something changes, and the style becomes not only more straight-forward and punchy, but Feldman begins to refer to his friend exclusively as "Haim"--but only for one chapter. I'd understand the distancing if that was sought, but this is at a point where they had just reunited after years of not seeing each other. If anything, this would be the time for using the first name.

It's as if the majority of the book was inspired by Cormac McCarthy, trying to find machismo poetry in a kid reaching out for a bowl of cereal or a drug-addled street fight, and the latter chapters are where we actually hear a genuine voice and its urgency in telling this important story. Either would have been fine for consistency, really.

And now I feel crappy about being so critical: it's someone pouring his heart out onto paper, for crying out loud, talking about being molested, consumed in a world of drugs. I'm going back to my Wodehouse to be cheered up again and I'll leave biographies and memoirs alone because they're so painful to read... at least for a while. (But I did realize I've never read Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher, which is almost unforgivable considering the Star Wars nerdery I've exposed myself to since the age of nine).

Surprisingly, this celebrity memoir turned out to be more thought-provoking than I imagined, but perhaps not in the way the author himself intended.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Myöhempien aikojen pyhiä by Juha Itkonen

"Surely you must be homesick, at least a little," said Kalevi's wife. "How are you doing, a young man so far away from his mother?"
I didn't reply. Not sure if I would have had the opportunity; Mark didn't allow it.
"David has no family," Mark said, in a sympathetic voice meant to convey an unfortunate fact. Blind have no eyes, deaf have no ears, crippled have no limbs, and Mark has no heart. Mark's heart is beating dead air. Dear God, please forgive me. 

Back in Finland, my friend and I had a chat with a Mormon missionary who had been lucky enough to be sent to a small town not too far from the Russian border. This young Mormon wasn't even trying to convert anyone at this point: Finland was both too secular and culturally Lutheran. But if we'd just come to one of these parties she (yes, she!) was organizing at the local Mormon church she'd be happy. It really didn't sound like a ploy; she seemed genuinely lonely. I think my friend ended up going.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Itkonen's Latter Day Saints--the fictional alienation and soul-searching of a young Mormon man sent to a small Finnish town--but that one encounter I had does not refute it, either.

In this story, David is sent to Finland with another, more passionate Mormon, Mark. While Mark furiously corresponds with Gabriel, an anonymous doubting Thomas online, David has doubts of his own--what kind of a god would lead him to temptation, kill his parents, or make him fall in love when it so obviously was a sin in his case. Among the quiet Finns David can keep his secrets safe, but only until his refusal to express the anguish he obviously carries begins to cause worry even among the most solemn of natives.

Sometimes I read Finnish books just to be reminded what it is like to be in a Finnish mindset: the way paragraphs are constructed, or the way a story is told, is often enough to transport me there even if the topic at hand is not restricted to Finnish culture.

In Latter Day Saints Itkonen reverses this: while his storytelling methods do not appear exclusively Finnish, he has delightfully hidden Finnish customs behind a shroud of mystery, experienced for the first time by two Americans and told through their view point. Like an in-joke, I could decipher these mysteries that the protagonists couldn't, yet at the same time I understood why they'd seem strange to people who weren't born and raised in the country.

In addition to enjoying a beautifully written story it's good to look into yourself every now and then through someone else's eyes.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

This book is not approved by animals
I'm very fond of my old brass alarm clock. Once I tied a wasp to the striking-surface of each of the copper-coloured bells on the top, where the little hammer would hit them in the morning when the alarm went off.
I always wake up before the alarm goes, so I got to watch.

Because I brought this up in my 10 Favorite Books post and then saw it for mere five dollars at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I had to reread this monster.

I was interested in seeing whether it was still as disturbing to me as it was when I first read it over a decade ago: I had watched a lot of horror movies as a kid and read a large portion of Stephen King's catalog by the end of my teens, but nothing had quite prepared me for the nausea and terror when I read The Wasp Factory. It is true: I did have to put it down every few pages to read some Hitchhiker's Galaxy to remind myself that happy thoughts still existed in this world. I had completely forgotten how short this book was because in my memories it took me way longer to finish it; it was just all the breaks I had to take and how intense this book is. The paperback version I have now is mere 184 pages.

This time I read The Wasp Factory in two days during commutes. Apparently it had made me such an impression that the reading experience was barely any different than ten years ago: I wasn't quite as disturbed because I already knew everything, but it didn't make reading the story much easier. This time, though, I didn't not need Douglas Adams as my crutch.

I'm partial to Banks's writing style, and even in this horrifying story he's in his element with descriptions that are surprisingly vivid in their brevity without ever going for the clichés. It's actually quite amazing how he can write so well about things so deplorable, which is probably why I like this book so much: there's such craft involved in knowing what is truly unsettling to people without resorting to a gorge fest. There is hardly any blood in this story.

The Wasp Factory is the story of Frank, a teenager living in a remote island off Scotland with his father. Right off the bat we know he's not quite there: his everyday life is filled with superstitious rituals that usually involve slaughtering small wild animals in order to foretell the future. When he finds out that his older brother Chris has broken out of a sanitarium and is on his way back to the family in a wake of burning buildings and dogs he must consult the dead beings. While Frank waits for his brother's arrival he tells us about all the murder and mayhem surrounding his family; a paint-by-numbers picture that is slowly filled in before our eyes, making us understand faster than Frank himself does the reasons for his actions.

Just pick up this book if you are intrigued; do not read anything about it because it's one of those books where your reading experience will be ruined if you know all the plot twists. There are moments in the story that now, upon second reading, I should have really seen coming from the deliciously placed foreshadowing elements, but then again... the story is so enthralling in its grossness and weirdness that I would have needed not to be completely taken by it to coolly analyze its content while reading. And that would not have been fun. Just let this book happen to you. That is, if you like to be horrified every now and then.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Hyperbole & A Half. Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

Once upon a time, someone linked me to a web comic/blog about Allie wondering whether her sweet, sweet dog was actually mentally challenged. I was immediately hooked with Hyperbole and A Half, Allie's blog. Although her drawings are definitely on the simple side, she manages to capture expressions and body language perfectly. In that dog story, the Simple Dog's confusion in trying to understand Allie's IQ tests is palpable in just a few strokes. You may also know Allie from this one image from her web comic that quickly became popular on the intarwebz.

Then, Hyperbole and A Half stopped updating, causing concern among the readers. A lot later, Allie came back with a new comic, which was part one of how she was battling with depression. It was scary: this person who was so damned funny was suffering, and we didn't know!

Adventures in Depression and Depression Part 2 are amazing: Allie explains with humor and insight what being depressed feels like, and why someone telling you to take up yoga to cheer yourself up won't work. One comparison that stuck with me was her cartoon self holding dead fish as a metaphor to her feelings, trying to tell people they are dead; instead of knowing what to do with this information, people would try to help Allie look for her fish (they're not lost--they're dead!), or they'd suggest that Allie try feeding them (too late--they're dead!), or take bees as pets instead (how does that help with the dead fish?). If anyone needs to explain depression to others, this should be used as reference material.

You can read her for free online, so why buy this book? For me it was a no-brainer: Allie Brosh has delighted my everyday for so long that I will be happy to support her in the hopes that she'll keep on writing and drawing. It's selfish of me, I know.

Also, the book contains the hilarious story "Parrot," which I either had managed to skip online or it just does not exist anywhere else. In it, Allie and her sister are given a toy parrot that repeats words back to them, which is probably the stupidest gift to give children (unless, as Allie suspects, the gift came from someone who hated her parents). The kids begin to terrorize the household with this toy robot immediately. Just the way that robot parrot is drawn, expressionless, recording gurgling sounds from the garbage disposal in the sink had me in stitches. The cheer-ups this book provides are worth the price.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack

goodreads.com
Light vacation reading by the pool! Vacation was a month ago, deadlines have since taken my typing life over, but better late than never, right?

Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a fictional diary written by Lola, a 12-year-old girl in a sometime-near-future New York. She writes about her posh private school, her concerns when her teacher and screenwriter parents aren't getting enough work, nonchalantly mention the city burning and presidents being assassinated, one after the other. Civil unrest and the consequent police and army response are closing in on the family's apartment while Lola's little sister becomes slowly unresponsive, and both parents battle with their own demons.

Because Lola is twelve, she does not get into the political and economic reasons why the country is burning and terrorized, and why her aunt begs her mother to let the kids join her in her gated community for safety--it's all left for the reader's imagination, which makes it all the more horrifying. The more Lola needs to spend her daily energy on mere survival, the more her writing style deteriorates into street slang, devoid of prescriptivist punctuation rules. She slowly becomes the young people she and all the friends she once had used to loathe.

With all of its disturbing violence and unsettling feel of dread, RASV is a remarkable teacher of empathy. Which is, quite honestly, why I like a lot of science fiction: the stories remove us from our reality, make us read about people and their plight and understand where they are coming from, only to realize that we have in fact been reading about our neighbors all along. Although the novel cannot conclusively explain why people engage in seemingly random acts of senseless violence, we learn about a scenario or two where this could happen: when people need to protect their loved ones; when people are oppressed enough. It is only us, watching it all unfold from our high castles, who think it is random and senseless.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

League of Denial. The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

Image from amazon.com -
read as a digital loan
 from the library
...[T]he momentum transferred in [fully armored players colliding] is still the equivalent of being hit in the head by a 10-pound cannonball traveling at 30 miles an hour.

League of Denial tracks the efforts of medical professionals to prove that suicides and Alzheimer's-like behavior from mere 50-year-olds after a career in NFL weren't just because of steroid use (something NFL attempted to claim) or because the players just happened to have a multitude of mental problems anyway. For over a decade, the NFL denied any connection between football and brain injury in the players, while at the same time secretly paying disability for brain damaged players.

The brain damage we are talking about is not about just seeing stars after a collision: this is an otherwise healthy athlete suddenly waking up at a bus station in a completely different city, not knowing how he got there; looking down at his kid and forgetting who he is looking at; writing letters upon letters in Flowers for Algernon style to anyone who might listen to him, in type and words that are slowly deteriorating into nonsense while the writer himself acknowledges that he can't make sense of words anymore. And then there were the suicides and the violence, brain damage causing players to make rash, illogical decisions.

Once the news about brain studies on football players spread, at least two players who committed suicide did so by shooting themselves in the heart to prevent damaging the brain, leaving behind notes requesting that their brains be donated to the studies to expose the dangers in football and to improve players' conditions and rights.

This book isn't set out to change football fans to haters: I still enjoy watching football after reading it. Now I just know what people have gone through in the history of the game, and how we have gotten here with plenty of rules that should prevent people from getting hurt so badly on the field. Yet, concussions are still considered as meh, it happens. Or the answer to concerns is, Well, don't play football if you don't like it. I would not want to banish football, but we do need to take care of the people who are offering us multibillion buck entertainment and deep, primal feelings for human tribalism that can't really be easily evoked otherwise than through team sports.

The League of Denial appreciates football, but criticizes the approach NFL had toward all studies and evidence showing that their players were being brain damaged, and that something should be done to help them. The studies were planning on making the NFL a safer place for players, but were met with resistance in fears of losing a lucrative business in the process. If NFL admitted that playing football was causing severe brain damage, what parent would ever want to put their kids into training?

This was an easy read except around midway, where Big Tobacco and their denial of smoking having any relation to causing cancer becomes the focus as a lengthy analogy to the case against NFL. Sure, both parties were motivated by the same (money) and would come up with their own teams of scientists to disprove independent studies, but I ended up skimming through the tobacco business parts as there was a lot of it, I was familiar with the Big Tobacco case already, and I couldn't wait to get back to the topic at hand: football.

The authors are at their best when they describe the coroners at work and their personalities, and the everyday life of damaged football players and their families. Although the court room bits and spats between the NFL and scientists are interesting, it occasionally got a bit too detailed for me. Do I need to know that some guy almost threw up when he was giving a speech because he had food poisoning, as it wasn't really relevant to the said speech or event?

Kids are still playing football, but hopefully in an ever safer environment, where coaches, parents, and sponsors involved have better information about the potential dangers the sport may cause if safeguards are not in place. Breaking a leg or an arm seems to happen to almost any athlete, but I find it easier to reconcile limited motion than permanent damage to the way humans process their thoughts and communicate with others.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My favorites, or the Facebook meme of listing 10 books

I was tagged a few times on Facebook to List 10 of your favorite books and tag others!, but I had a hard time picking out my favorites. It's not like I read so much that I wasn't able to decide; I just first had to figure out what "favorite" even means to me.

mrblahg.com
In addition to that, listing favorite books comes with weird elements. I was just recently amused by this hilarious debate on Reddit about how David Foster Wallace's favorite books could not have been the genre books he lists because he's a smart guy. He never claimed that everyone should read these as brain-enhancing and enlightening classics; they were books he enjoyed. But there must be something else to it... He must be ironic! Or, or... he's trying to assimilate himself as the common man, so that we mere mortals won't be intimidated by his huge brain. That's it! Phew... Now back to secretly enjoying Janet Evanovich behind my carefully crafted, fake Paradise Lost covers. God forbid anyone enjoys bestsellers.

That debate helped me understand my own favorites. My favorite books are completely different from the ones I might list should people ask me, "What would you recommend?" When someone asks about my favorites, I think back to books I have read more than once; books that have become important to me for a variety of reasons. As an example, I will not recommend Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to a person who is not at all interested in silly sci-fi humor, although it's a book (series?) I grew up reading and re-reading, chatting with my old  friends about it and making new friends over it. Later in college, it became the please take me to a happy place book I had to read every ten or twenty pages of horror I was subjected to in the Wasp Factory. I have a hard copy of the collection, but I bought a Kindle edition as well in case I need a bit of cheering up on the road, wherever I am.

npr.com

Add to that the brain space the books I've read most recently are taking up: I was tempted to just list the ones that had impressed me in recent years, right about the time when my reading habits had dramatically shifted (this seems to happen to me every 5 years or so). And all these nonfiction books kept on wanting to creep in!

Anyway.

Here are mine, in no particular order, and while typing most of them I thought, "Man, I need to read that again..." Except LOTR. I've read it so many times that I do not have any immediate need to read it again.

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
5. Diamond Age, or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson (although... the older I get, the more I like Cryptonomicon. It's like a Skywalker vs Solo kind of a thing)
6. The World According to Garp by John Irving
7. American Girl by Monika Fagerholm
8. Vihreä tukka by Aila Meriluoto
9. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The more I look at this list, the more doubtful I'm of some of them... Maybe I don't have "favorites" at all; just books I really like when I'm in a certain mood.

Riikka Pulkkinen's True and Peter Watts's Blindsight almost made it to the list: I loved every single sentence in these extremely different books and I can see rereading them both over and over--but it's too soon to call them favorites. I'll need to wait for the initial infatuation to die down.

Quite frankly, this is the main reason why almost all of the books I have listed aren't anything I've read within the past two years. I just finished that Steve-O biography and right now, I feel like it's among my favorite nonfiction books ever--but will I feel that way in two months? We'll see.

EDIT: I cannot believe I completely and utterly forgot the book that I always tell people is one of my favorites: The Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. See!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Found in Translation. How Language Shapes our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche

www.theclause.org
Although this title may sound grandiose, especially for people who may not use a second language, it's not as hyperbolic as you may think.

The authors of this nifty little book document well the variety of work translators perform, often undetected by the public at large. After all, being a translator is not unlike being an IT professional: when what you've done is done well, people do not even notice you exist. Mistranslate one word, and the world goes down in flames. Well, almost. It has been known to cause millions of dollars spent in rebranding an image or a moment of highly flammable situations at the UN council.

It's a great book for people who think of translators as working primarily on newspapers, novels or nonfiction books, but it's also a book for translators: it validates our work and made me feel gosh darned good!

Then again, I honestly had a slight moment of PTSD reading about the interpreter who helps 911 callers. The first (and consequently the last) time I have been in a situation like that was when I had to tell a patient about the options she had for the rest of her life--which were counted in mere minutes. My palms were sweating a good half hour after the call, and I retreated back to working with software manuals and chemical labeling. My hat's off to interpreters who make those phone calls.

Luckily, Kelly and Zetzsche are good at switching gears when the topic gets too heavy. As a counterweight to the medical, legal and political stories they cover how translators all over the world dealt with the anagram name Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter; how The Simpsons is translated and subtitled into Finnish and by whom; and why Ikea's bathroom furnishings rub the Danes the wrong way.

Some of my favorite stories about translation challenges in the book are about marketing, such as this iPod Shuffle's marketing image, which was the small device between two fingers and the words "small talk" underneath:

Just two basic words. Easy to translate, right? [...] If you had to describe the phrase small talk to someone who did not understand it, what words would you use? Chances are, you would discuss the importance of exchanging pleasantries. You might describe asking someone about the weather. Basically, you'd be describing something superficial, and perhaps unimportant. How would that translate exactly, and would your explanation of the concept reflect well on Apple? [...] In cases like Apple's, an entire atmosphere of content must be translated to support those customers who speak other languages and want to know how to use their products.

You'll need to read the book to find out the clever solutions!

The book also interviews simultaneous interpreters at the UN and their favorite gaffes, and talks to people taking part in automated translation campaigns that help relief organizations in receiving accurate and current information on disease outbreaks or natural catastrophes in hard to reach areas.

To put the gist of the book shortly, the device you are reading this entry from has either been localized into your language, or into another language, so that a person from another country can access the same information as you. Translation is about leveling the information play field, from ads selling rejuvenating creams and make-up to agreements between warring nations.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Professional Idiot. A Memoir by Steve "Steve-O" Glover

http://www.spl.org
Over the years, lots of people have said that my grammar and spelling are too good for it to actually be me writing the words I post. The fact is that I grew up attending super top-notch schools (I was the son of a corporate executive, who wasn't initially thrilled about my career path). My dad also gave me two choices the summer I turned 16: get a summer job, or go to secretary school to learn how to type. I skated to secretary school so fuckin fast it was incredible. In short, it's me, it's always me-- I think anybody who ever authorizes another person to communicate as them is a fucking moron. Love, Steve-O
From Steve-O's Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

Just a couple of entries ago I said I don't read biographies. Well, here's my second one in a short while!

If you are unfamiliar with Steve-O, please don't Google Image his name because... yeah, just don't. He is one of the guys in the hit MTV series Jackass, where guys kicked each other in the nuts, rode trikes off skating ramps, and made each other puke on camera. 

The reason why I even clicked on Steve-O's AMA was because of my guilty pleasure: I love watching Jackass, or even better, Wildboyz.

Wildboyz was a ridiculous show where Steve-O and Chris Pontius traveled the world in pseudo-David Attenborough nature documentary settings, only to get their rightful comeuppance from wild animals. So when I saw Steve-O's words above in the AMA--you know, the guy's who walks on stilts and gets coconut crabs to nip at his butt cheeks--I had to read this memoir that was mentioned in the AMA thread.

It is so good.

Now, you might expect it to be a high-fiving tale of becoming famous for doing stupid crap on TV while possibly high on a variety of drugs. Well, it is very much that, but it displays a level of humility I was not expecting at all. It's as if Steve-O sat in front of his computer to type up this memoir as an exercise in paying his dues to people he screwed over in the past because he was so selfish and out of control. It takes a lot to admit that you have behaved poorly, instead of blaming the behavior on anyone or anything else around you.

I guess that's what I found refreshing in this memoir. It's well written, extremely entertaining and funny, but it's also self-deprecating and honest. You can tell it's his story in his own words, expletives included when they are needed--once you get over him having a tone of voice that is not just raspy laughter. The man lived many of his formative years in London, so you even get a bit of British dry humor in the mix. Just as you think his attempts at being famous can't get any more absurd, there's a chapter titled OK, Who Wants to Hear Me Rap?

Although I had some good laughs, the bits toward the end are pretty rough to read: Steve-O has to largely quote other people, including his dad and sister, as he has barely any recollection of the time himself: he was constantly high on a cocktail of drugs, paranoid about voices and raving about other dimensions. Classic Philip K. Dick stuff. His former cast members had to arrange a fairly aggressive intervention and have him committed, which no doubt saved his life.

Professional Idiot is probably not the first book people would think of buying as a Christmas, birthday or Valentine's gift to anyone (the photos in it... sheesh!), but it's a great reflection on the desire to be the center of attention. In its core, it's about a kid who convinced himself early on he would just disappoint others around him with his actions, so why not go all the way and be the craziest person anyone could ever meet if that granted attention.

By the way, Steve-O is still goofing around and doing crazy stunts, so don't think that he regrets everything.

If you need a gateway to reading Steve-O, here is short HuffPo post about writing the memoir.

Also, a library plug: if you have an eReader and you do not venture to the library that often, check to see if your library has made eBook borrowing available. The paper copy of this memoir had multiple holds on it, so I downloaded it straight to my Kindle from the Seattle Public Library as an eBook loan. Perfect!