Monday, January 27, 2014

The Whistleblower by Kathryn Bolkovac with Cari Lynn

Jim [...] tromped straight to the beer, then splashed his way into the pool, all the while telling us that he had already been on one peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and had liked it so much he was signing on for another. Then, in the same sentence in which he described how scenic Bosnia was, he said, "And I know where you can get really nice twelve- to fifteen-year-olds."

This is what Kathryn Bolkovac heard before the police-force-for-hire group from the US had even left for a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and it would only get worse once she landed and was made the head of trafficking investigation: she found that while UN and its contracted police force from the United States was supposed to help democratize Bosnia and keep its citizens safe, it was also actively protecting those contractors who just happened to be abusing a broken country by taking part in buying trafficked women and keeping them in their bedrooms, or denying that trafficking was happening at all.

Although she does win in court at the end for having been discharged from service for whistleblowing, it is extremely depressing to see the same people who were destroying or falsifying evidence or even engaging in these illegal activities being returned to their old posts, but in another country. The corrupt people from Bosnia were later sent to Afghanistan. Great.

The horrifying topic aside, it's a great nonfiction book that has an urgency about it. Bolkovac wrote it together with an author, which was a good call: I have read historical nonfiction by people involved in the events they write about, but if they are not writers themselves their message will fall to deaf ears due to terrible or boring writing. One book I read should have been absolutely fascinating, but the author kept on repeating the same phrases and jokes he apparently found hilarious and no editor had told him to cut them out, and he also meandered into details that weren't really relevant, making the whole book a weird mixture of random anecdotes with no head or tail. It became a jibber-jabber of a senile mind, to be frank. (I am not going to tell you which book this was).

Not so with this one: there is a good structure to this book, which begins with Bolkovac fearing for her life and being hidden by her colleagues as they have heard death threats being flown around in the office. It reads like a mystery thriller with the exception that it's all real. I'm sure Bolkovac had numerous anecdotes she could have added to illustrate her plight and the whole appalling situation, but instead of oversaturation she (or the author who helped her, Lynn) decided to focus on effectiveness of the message.

I read this 229 pager in 24 hours and it was hard to put down. Of course the topic itself is captivating: how can this be happening? But the writing definitely played a part, and I'm glad that Bolkovac's story got an appropriate outcome.

You can find out more about here on her website:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kerjäläinen ja jänis by Tuomas Kyrö

Arto Paasilinna is possibly the best known Finnish author out there: his 1975 novel The Year of the Hare has been translated into 18 languages and I have met multiple French people who have praised him to me (one had come to Finland to take Finnish lessons just because he was madly in love with Paasilinna's novels). For a meek Finn, that equals great success. I read quite a lot of Paasilinna in my teens, but The Year of the Hare is the only one I have reread since.

Kerjäläinen ja jänis is not written by him, but before saying anything about the novel Paasilinna needs to be brought in, because this modern retelling/spoof of the classic novel gets meta like no other.

The Year of the Hare begins when a reporter called Vatanen runs over a hare on his way to an assignment, gets out of the car and then something snaps: the meaninglessness of his reporting job juxtaposed with the hurt animal who just lives in the moment inspires Vatanen to grab the hare and disappear into the forest right there and then. Introspective and humorous adventures ensue, when the reporter and the hare hide from Vatanen's past and future as best they can. Here is a link to the New York Times' review from 2002 about the novel and Paasilinna in general.

That was 1975. Here is Tuomas Kyrö in 2011 with his "The Beggar and the Hare." The title made me snort as I immediately knew what the contents would be about, and I giggled even more when I read the protagonist's name, Vatanescu. Kyrö is not even trying to be subtle.

Vatanescu is a Romanian man brought to Finland by a human trafficker to beg for money on the streets of Helsinki. He speaks a bit of English, has no ID and his only desire is to make enough money to go back home and buy his son soccer shoes. He is a complete outsider because he can barely communicate with others, least with Finns don't understand begging on the street, finding it revolting.[1]

One day Vatanescu escapes and saves an injured rabbit from the hands of ruffians who were trying to capture this menace to wildlife and sell it to the zoo for tiger fodder.[2] Unlike in Paasilinna's story where the hare shows Vatanen in its mute ways what life could really be like once you get off the rat race, Vatanescu sees himself in the rabbit: an unwanted outsider in Finnish society who has nowhere to go.

He begins to meander from place to place aimlessly with the rabbit in his pocket. He has no idea that he is slowly becoming a celebrity when cell phone snapshots of him and the rabbit begin to surface in social media and go viral.

While Paasilinna's Vatanen was fighting against society's pressures on the modern human, Vatanescu expects nothing and is trying to be nobody. He has no grand plan, no philosophical revelations. He has no say in it when Finns put him on a pedestal and make a mythical creature out of him, the cardboard stand-in for Finnishness that may not really exist. They want him to be the Vatanen Finns could never be.

I began reading Kerjäläinen ja jänis thinking that it is a modern retelling, written tongue in cheek. The further I got, the more the novel became a satire of Finns and our pining for mythical symbols to stand for ourselves when real life gets too real. All cultures have their mythologies that are retold to boost a national image that may or may not be true. Vatanescu is ironically what Finns want to be seen as, without actually being anything like him. He even becomes a pawn for populist politicians to appeal to voters.

Stylistically, Kyrö has Paasilinna's tropes down: the ridiculous names, laconic everyday philosophers, almost magical encounters when people connect with each other. I was first annoyed by some of the portrayals of foreigners in Kerjäläinen (I mean, "Ming Po" is supposedly a Vietnamese name? Come on...), but now I'm thinking that perhaps this was intentional, satirizing how Finns see foreigners in Finland.

I can imagine people having a knee-jerk reaction to this novel, thinking that The Year of the Hare is too sacred to be used as a framework for making gentle fun of modern Finns. I have enjoyed The Year of the Hare for its themes and its black humor--plus, it's a really tiny novel and a quick read (I should probably read it again). It's not the novel's fault that it has become larger than life for Finns. Kyrö does not make fun of the novel--he satirizes Finns who are in love with The Year of the Hare.

Reading Kyrö's version was a bit tough with its kill your darlings approach to the original, but at the same time I think it's a healthy approach culturally. There is nothing wrong with Finns making fun of themselves as a whole for a change, instead of poking fun at subcultures and foreigners while letting the reader identify with the protagonist; letting the reader remain safely in the in-group.

[1] In the mid-2000s, Romanians began to appear on the streets of Helsinki, begging for money. The only unwanted attention on the streets up until then were drunk Finns who might curse at you or people trying to enlist you to give money for some noble cause. That kind of begging was slightly tolerated, but when the Romanians came... who are these foreigners?

[2] A genuine problem in Helsinki: the hares are OK, but selfish people began to let pet rabbits loose in the parks because they got tired of petting them. They obviously bred like rabbits and became such a nuisance to the park and its flora that the rabbits had to be gotten rid of. A good real-life illustration of how Finns want to still be regarded as the great lovers of nature, but actually do silly things like these: letting pet rabbits wreak havoc in nature (while probably also making fun of any environmentalists for wanting to preserve natural landscape--those damned tree huggers!)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Below is nothing but spoilers, because the reasons I found this story both infuriatingly annoying and genius cannot really be talked about without giving the story away. If you want to be surprised by this novel and plan on reading it, come back once you are done with it. I knew nothing about Atonement before I started reading it besides that it was highly acclaimed and it was made into a movie. Now I wonder how on Earth they made it into a movie...? Anyway!

***spoiler galore begins here****

I almost did not finish this novel, because stylistically it was annoying as hell with its prose that was so close to purple that I was wondering whether I'd been given the wrong book to read and not the praised Atonement. I understand taking liberties with punctuation for artistic reasons, but having multiple pages of text be paragraphs upon paragraphs of seemingly just one sentence, comma-spliced to hell was just a headache to read.

The twist at the end, however, is that that's how it was meant to be! Once I read the very last pages it dawned on me: it was crappy on purpose! So genius! But unfortunately, it's like making misogynist jokes ironically--you're still making misogynist jokes. Or growing a mustache ironically: you're still... You know what I mean.

The story of Atonement takes place in 1935 and focuses on a thirteen-year-old girl, who loves putting up plays and lives in a sort of a fantasy land of her own. She sees her sister have an encounter with a man they all grew up with; a servant's boy. The man gives this little kid a note to give her sister, but realizes that he had given her the one that was extremely inappropriate, written in crazed passion. Of course the little brat reads the note and begins to fantasize that this man they once knew is an animal who should be arrested for being too dangerous around women.

When some other kids disappear during a dinner party and another girl is raped, the brat claims to have seen the young man do it. The raped girl claims she saw nothing. The police come and take the young man away, professing his love to the brat's older sister.

Then, cue war time. Now, I admit: this is where I almost stopped reading the story, because it went from purple prose to the most boring thing I have ever read. I started looking for sentences that would have some substance in them, but everything was just blahdeblah. I felt like McEwan was just going through the motions and putting something on paper. And the cockney accents on paper, my god...

We follow the young man who has been imprisoned and now is part of the war effort, and we follow the brat who is now eighteen and a nurse, feeling a bit guilty about what she did.

Toward the end, the brat decides to contact her sister and tell her of an elaborate scheme to reveal who the real rapist was and clear the young man's name. Too bad this is years later and the whole family has been torn apart. The sister throws the brat out who swears that everything will be OK once she confesses.

Then, the story ends there with the brat's initials and the year 1997.

The next page is from her diary, or a letter--I can't remember--where as an old woman she reminisces about her childhood. She says that since the awful events of that day she has been writing and writing this story to get it published, to get the real culprit imprisoned and to be atoned (geddit???) for her sins. Unfortunately, her publishers have always turned her down, saying that she cannot use real names, or she cannot make the ending this or that because of libel, but finally now, as an 80-year-old, she has finished the version she wants to publish. The real rapist is still out there, an old man, but our former brat is dedicated to publishing her story once he dies. She also tells us that the real story was much sadder than her newest version, where the young lovers live happily ever after.

We also see letters from her publisher commenting on her writing style and her plot points.

So, you see? The novel begins the way the 13-year-old girl, full of fantastical thoughts, would have written a book: pompous style, pseudo-poetry with comma overload and imagery. The older and more ashamed of her actions she gets and the worse the real life events become, the more stilted is her writing, which eventually crescendos into an adult's fantasy of having everything be all right, and her getting absolution from her sister whom she has alienated and wronged with her stupidity as a kid.

And hey. The brat ended up being an unreliable narrator--my weakest of weak spots in literature. How could I not like it?

I thought that was genius, and I would now read it again seeing that it was all wonderfully on purpose. I almost started reading it again right away after finishing!

However... Is it enough that five pages at the very end reveal why the rest of it was annoyingly written? After all, what I still ended up doing was slog through prose that made me want to throw the book away in disgust.

Yes. It is the best worst book I have read in a while.


Oh my pete.

What if...

What if the last few pages were an atonement for the rest of the novel?

If that would be the case, this novel would be even more amazing!