Friday, August 29, 2008

Jed Rubenfeld: The Interpretation of Murder (Unabridged Audio)

When: This summer
Verdict: An OK thriller, not quite interesting enough for the slower pace of audio
Fate: Removed from iTunes

I don't find I have enough time to read crime fiction, even though I love it. Audio books are a decent solution, especially since I often listen at the gym and in other environments where I might be distracted at times and might find complex argumentation difficult to follow (which, by the way, reaffirms my admiration for the way in which barely literate people in the Renaissance could follow and decode highly allegorical, dense and multi-layered sermons and plays with audio alone).

The Interpretation of Murder gets extra points for being, at least contextually, a historical novel. Calling it "locally uchronic" might be correct… It is set during a real trip taken to New York by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and other early psychoanalysts, at a point in time when they were just finding an audience, but before they were entirely through with figuring out what they actually thought. Also, obviously, before Freud and Jung took separate paths.

Rubenfeld connives a way to get them involved in a (fictional) murder investigation – on the trail of a serial killer with an assortment of sexual fetishes, naturally – and by the end of the book, the crime is solved with not too many surprises along the way. What makes the book worth reading is Rubenfeld's painstaking attention to detail. He makes an enormous effort to bring alive turn-of-the-previous-century New York, its landmarks, social classes, mores and hypocrisies. The 20th century is beginning, in some ways brought about by the psychoanalysts themselves, and while it will bring many freedoms to many previously oppressed groups, there is also a sadness in the loss of the 19th century fairytale world of the privileged. As resonant themes go, that is not bad for a crime romp.

When it comes to psychoanalysis itself, Rubenfeld stays close to the sources, that is, the published texts, letters and diaries of everyone involved. His grasp of psychoanalytical concepts and how they developed within the small community, as well as of the social dynamics between the characters, seems solid enough. Some conversations are apparently reconstructions based on actual historical recollections (although transposed, by necessity, into the frame of the thriller plot). So The Interpretation of Murder serves as a decent primer to the state of psychoanalysis at the point when it started to matter, and a highly entertaining snapshot of the inevitable tensions between its rapid consequences and the bourgeois society which had produced it.

The audio book is fine, but I suggest reading it in print. The descriptions and theoretical conversations, interesting though they are, can drag on a bit too lazily for the audio tempo.

Buy The Interpretation of Murder on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Joyce Carol Oates: Snygg [Sexy]

From: A sale in Akateeminen Kirjakauppa
When: Two or three years ago
Verdict: Extremely good approach to complex topic, beautiful economy in the telling.
Fate: To be given to someone who will appreciate it.
Read: In one sitting on 19 Aug 2008.

This book is in English. I read it in Swedish.

I was reading this book just after Michael Phelps had pulled off his Olympic miracle and was interested to find him appearing in the book. Not in person, but the main character is a high school swimmer whose life was once changed by the 18-year-old Phelps bursting onto the scene.

There are other things going on in this kid's life too, problems relating to the fact that he is a little bit too hot for his own good. A male teacher takes an interest, and although nothing untoward happens (not even groping of the History Boys kind) there is still the fact that it could have. There is also the fact of the leniency of US educational institutions when it comes to the academic performance of top-performing athletes.* And the fact that this teacher disapproves of that practice.
And finally there are some pictures of boys and swimming trunks and even naked, an a quite possibly homosexual man in a small-minded middle-class environment of the kind homosexual men tend to leave as fast as they can, and with an inspiring economy of words Oates brews of these ingredients a local disaster. The topic is heavy and complicated, but she doesn't chicken out or simplify, even at the end.

I remember reading Joyce Carol Oates' YA novel Foxfire as a teenager and not liking it at ALL, but I always felt I should give her a real shot. She is, after all, a heavy Nobel contender whose chances are hampered by her prolific interest in stuff that I myself find fascinating – boxing, Marilyn Monroe, Young Adult readers. This novel ended up in my shopping hamper because it was on sale and looked like a quick read, and proved very good indeed. I almost wrote just now that I'm now ready to graduate to her real novels. What I meant, obviously, was her long novels.

*read more about this phenomenon in Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons

Snygg seems to be out of print. You can buy Sexy in English on Amazon.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nuppu Stenros: Signmark

From: The author at the release party
When: 14 Aug
Verdict: Highly interesting, inspirational, gripping & educational.
Fate: To keep, obviously

This book is in Finnish.

I should say at the start that Nuppu Stenros is a friend of mine, and I'd be unlikely to write publicly about this book if I didn't think it was good. Luckily I found it unputdownable. Nuppu and I we live in different countries and only meet once or twice a year, but even so I had managed to hear some time ago about a fascinating interview with a deaf rapper called Signmark she had done for her television programme. What I hadn't realised was how this encounter had eventually pulled her into the "Signmark machine" – the network of musicians, producers, media people and volunteer surrounding the charismatic and brilliant Marko Vuoriheimo.

The story is as inspirational as it is unlikely. Deaf kids, it turns out, watched a fair bit of MTV in the 80s because it was very visual. Michael Jackson, apparently, was a special favourite. Watching MTV with friends one day, the young Marko decided that he, too, would be on MTV before long. His friends, reasonably, called him insane: deaf people can't become musicians. Fast forward 20 years. When Signmark releases his first album (on DVD too, obviously) MTV News is there to record it.

You're bound to wonder, so this is how it works: Signmark raps with his hands, in Finnish signlanguage or in ASL, while another member of the band simultaneously does the voice part, rapping in Finnish or American. (Since becoming a global phenomenon, Signmark is increasingly turning to ASL). He has a good band. The beats are awesome, and – this is very important for the deaf audience – the music videos exceptionally visual and filmatically narrated.

There are all kinds of challenges involved, fascinatingly explained in the book. What is rhyme in a signed language? How do you translate rap lyrics so that a rhyme can be retained in both performance languages? How do you design the beats so that the deaf experience of the music is optimal (base vibrations are a key, apparently). This is on top of the normal hip-hop challenges of how to, you know, represent.

Signmark is a deaf activist and quite a bit of his music deals with the oppression of deafs and Deaf culture. I have to admit that I didn't know Finland has such an abysmal track record in this field, and we're not alone. The chapters on the development of sign language education in the world are, to my great surprise, fascinating. So are the parts about living deaf: about practical challenges, common misconceptions, Deaf culture and the international Deaf community. The technical revolution of video phones has enabled a deaf renaissance and an unprecedented degree of liberty for deaf and partially hearing children, but technical advances in the field of medicine are also threatening the survival of the whole culture.

There is an increasing trend today to attempt operations of deaf kids (basically planting a kind of hearing aid to grow into their ear) to enable them at least some kind of experience of sound. Signmark, who has a master in education with sign languages as his speciality, is a strong opponent of this development on what comes across as very sound grounds. What the operations produce is not hearing, he cautions, and the attempts to integrate kids who cannot hear into the mainstream community severely threatens their language development and self-esteem. If they spend their early years struggling to learn a language they cannot hear or fully master, they will grow up without a language entirely (which affects learning and the brain in all kinds of negative ways). But giving children a sign language from the start – and sign laguages are natural languages more than rich enough to construct a life on – can give him the necessary linguistic base to then also master the mainstream language of his family or culture.

Signmark is, I should add, not an isolationist. He is a bridge-builder from a bilingual family who has engages actively with non-Deaf environments and has many hearing friends. And a hearing wife whom, as he points out in one of his hits, it had not too many decades ago been illegal for him to marry. He is also an incredibly charming, relaxed dude, and possibly something of a genius. He knows a big pile of languages (for a Deaf person you have to separate the languages he can sign, speak, and read, but even so the number here is impressive) and he is a world-level deaf athlete and also played high-level sports in hearing teams. There is, in other words, plenty for Nuppu to cover even in the parts that are straightforward biography, but the real achievement of this book is how it manages to inform and change mindsets while entertaining. Just like Signmark's music.

The beautiful photos and exceptionally visual layout deserve a special mention.

Buy Signmark on AdLibris.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Marina Warner: Six Myths of Our Time. Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and more

From: Amazon
When: Hilary term, 2008
Verdict: Extremely useful & fascinating
Fate: Kept for use (although immediately lent to game a researcher friend).

How did I get into Warner this year? Something relating to cannibals, surely. The six essays in this slim volume cover a range of fields from female medieval mystics over shoot-em-up video games to Hannibal Lecter. Although titled "myths of our time" this span comes across as perfectly natural. Warner convincingly argues that our contemporary pop-cultural myths are related to those of our culture in the past; reading her makes one think that Ovid and Victorian landscape paintings can be a meaningful keys to the public collapse of Britney Spears or to the Columbine massacre.

The essays were originally a series of BBC radio broadcasts and each center on a theme – Monstrous mothers: Boys will be boys; Little angels, little monsters; Beautiful beasts; Cannibal tales; Home. The last is about nation and perhaps less interesting to us non-Britons, the first five a meaty and thought-provoking foray into our culture's ideas (new, old and changing) about extreme women, appropriate masculinities, the mythological and fetishized innocence of childhood, the terrifying natural world and cannibalism as a metaphor for conquest and taboo-breaking. The brief and helpful introduction places the essays in a theoretical context, and although the texts themselves are easily digestible by an educated mainstream audience, there is a good list of sources and further reading for the academically inclined.

I realize there millions of people out there who just don't see the point of pop-cultural criticism, let alone Cultural Studies, so I'd like to take this opportunity to explain why I find it important. Cultural myths are stories and structures behind stories that help us construct who we are: in a culture we have them in common, so that being able to recognize and understand certain narratives places us with the group of people (like "Westerners" or "Finns" or "Academically educated women") to whom those stories are available and meaningful. And as we place ourselves within the appropriate group to decode the stories, we try those identities on for size. When the shoe fits, we find ourselves aligned with a culture, and realize something about our individual personalities. And even when it doesn't, we have to place ourselves in that position to read the message, and may find ourselves in a position of being somehow inferior or wrong relative to the norms of the surrounding culture, and under subconscious (or conscious) pressure to conform.

Since we all do this even when we are not making any active analysis at all, it is fascinating even to the layman to see a pro slice and dice some popular stories from our worlds and lives to see what went into constructing them. Warner's approach is sometimes surprising and I often find myself disagreeing with her along the way – "like NO WAY can this be relevant" – but at the end, pieces in my brain have shifted, or a veil has been lifted, and I look up from the world at a world that no longer looks entirely the same. The power of stories is, obviously, here too at work, deconstructing other stories. In that sense Warner (who is also a novelist) is a little like Harry Houdini, who was a stage magician but committed his life to exposing the frauds claiming to demonstrate real supernatural events. Houdini revealed their magic to be nuts and bolts, smoke and mirrors and invisible wires, and some people who had invested their self-image in believing in Spiritism (etc) felt too affronted to deal with the truth.

Talking about veils, Warner is also two surprisingly rare things in British letters: a female public intellectual and an unapologetic feminist. The book contains some sharp observations about the different contemporary echoes of St Paul's recommendation that women veil themselves and not speak in public. It sucks that this needs spelling out but her feminism obviously does not suggest that she would somehow dislike men, and her essay on how our ideas about masculine problem-solving have changed from intelligence to brute force is both brilliant and scarily relevant. Actually, that goes for much of the content of the essays, which are from 1994 – my only gripe with Warner is that she is not psychic, that she could not write about Britney and school shootings and reality game commercials because those things had mostly not happened yet. Luckily, she is prolific. I am very seriously planning to write every word she's ever written.

I own the aesthetically very pleasing Vintage paperback, which is the one I would recommend.

Byt Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More: Vintage Books Edition on Amazon.

Sari Peltoniemi: Kummat

From: Borrowed from my friend Mike Pohjola
When: Over a year ago
Verdict: Not half bad!
Fate: Returned with thanks

This novel is in Finnish.

As my friend Mike was finishing his well-received first novel, which for all its orginality is technically fantasy and technically for the YA market, I asked him whether he actually reads any YA lit himself. He immediately game me two answers, the one being along the lines of "Nuh" and the other along the lines of "Sure", and handed me this book, written by a friend of his. I took this as "not so much, but here's a recent example", and borrowed it, very curious about what YA authors in my neck of the woods are up to these days.

Kummat – "the strange ones" – are a group of high school kids who suddenly grow tails. They become a bit more animal in other ways as well, the many females turning into a kind of harem for the one, dominant male (who is endowed with looks, humour, the power of making them feel special, and a sexuality which is not as it turns out limited to females, with or without tails).

The whole thing is a bit uncomfortable for everyone involved, and for lack of anything better to do the kids decide to become erotic dancers at seedy nightclubs in their dreary Finnish town. While this may seem a bit out of left field when I write it down like this, it makes a bit more sense in the novel, which will almost certainly never be translated for the American market.

The main body of the narrative is interspersed with short narrative sequences offering potential and conflicting explanations for the tails (they are caused by aliens; hey are a curse; they are an evolutionary remnant; they are familiar from folklore). None of these explanations is given more credence than any of the others, and their status relative to the main narrative is not clarified apart from some suggestion that the kids research their predicament on the internet and that the sequences could perhaps be dreams or fantasies. (A similarly unresolved relation between different textual layers in a novel occurs in Mike's debut, for which I assume this may have been an inspiration).

Peltonemi writes convincingly about identity and peer pressure, and the novel opens up for discussions about gender, difference and status without preaching about any of these things. Thrown together with a random sample of classmates normally belonging to different cliques, the main character comes face to face with her own prejudices, and so of course must the reader, which is interesting when our prejudices are the same (and less so when they are not).

I sometimes find speculative fiction of this basically realist type difficult to read because I am not certain what importance to give different or conflicting generic signals. Reading Kummat, I enjoyed it vaguely but did not know what to make of it – a "head or tail" pun is called for but I can't think of one – and it is only upon reflection that I find it quite intelligent. The imagery that has stayed with me now feels appealing; on reading I found some of the milieus realistically but perhaps unecessarily depressing.

Ultimately the girls' cruise ship trip to Sweden, a Finnish coming-of-age ritual documented too rarely in fiction of any genre, brings home the point that the novel is not about tails specifically - what sets them apart and unites them could be anything. While this begs the followup "then why tails", the conceit works. And Peltoniemi's treatment of sexuality in high school-students is certainly more complex and thought-provoking than, for instance, Stephanie Meyer's.

Buy Kummat at Suurikuu.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Another Book Embargo: De-Junk!

I tell my friend and colleague Jonne about the Book Embargo. He is very surprised, as he, too, has recently started a book embargo, with rules not entirely unlike mine. (We both, for instance, make an exception for graphic novels). Perhaps this is turning into a trend?

We just have too many things. All of us. Too much guilt.

My own book embargo has two direct inspirations. One is Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, who with his Manhattan family went without pretty much everything for a year. He and his wife are both professional writers (like me), so the idea of not buying any books was fairly high on the list of terrors. Not as high as forgoing toilet paper, which they chose to as well, but still. The article I read and then ruminated upon for about a year before anything happened was at the New York Times. Beavan's book (ha!) on the subject will be out next year.

The other is a book (ha!) that I bought, at Borders Oxford during my first year in England and have implemented in incremental raids on all my successive households. (Only now, to be honest, with real visible results – I am saying goodbye to two more large pieces of furniture today). It is called The Life Laundry: De-Junk Your Life, and is by Dawna Walter and Mark Franks.

My least favourite chapter in De-Junk, which is otherwise filled with reasonable and realistic advice was the one on books:

…think about who you have been and who you are now. Take the great leap and let go of some of the trophy books that we all keep to remind ourselves that we have obtained knowledge. You don't need the status symbol of a book to know what you have achieved in your intellectual pursuits.

How I have detested these lines! It took me almost five years of cleaning out other stuff before I could accept the wisdom in them and start getting rid of books I am unlikely ever to re-read. Five years! Now my favourite part about finishing a book is to decide whether to keep it – and the answer often being no!

Buy The Life Laundry: How To De-Junk Your Life at Amazon.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Agneta von Koskull: Mandala

From: The same friend who gave me the previous volume
When: At the same time
Verdict: Still really good, although not quite as personally affecting
Fate: Passed on to an aunt with the other book

This book is in Swedish. I read it in Finnish.

Since Agneta is older in this book, her story proceeds without the joyful presence of the child narrator; luckily the author has a pretty entertaining view on her older younger self as well. The two are not as easy to separate in this book as the previous one, where the child felt like a character at some distance from the writer channeling her. Key relationships, social and romantic, in one's late teens and early twenties are reflected in a perhaps more urgent way in the grown self, and so Mandala has a tone of authorial self-evaluation to it. Between the lines the grown woman, painter and author, is reconstructing and considering her foundations in the teenager who ran away to Hamburg to be a maid and ended up homeless, a political radical and in art school.

The student world in which young Agneta moves is peripherally connected to the Baader-Meinhof group and the reader is allowed glimpses of its radicalization through the eyes of, as it were, a contemporary eye witness. If this view is at times very naive, von Koskull makes sure that we know that so was she; we can hardly expect stringent and distanced analyses from a young woman who nearly dies of malnutrition after having decided that her vegetarianism will be based on only eating beautifully coloured food.

There is even something naive about her adventures in the naughty pictures trade, in her wild sex life and in her heavy drinking; I am convinced that some of these choices, even in the seventies, put Agneta in very dangerous situations. But something – an angel; a spiritual yearning, the Moomin valley adventure spirit – keeps Agneta alive for the reader to deposit with a distinct and complex sense of relief at a Swedish ashram at the end of the book.

She is in her fearlessness at times exhausting company, but I am hoping for more sequels all the same. Did Agneta ever master the art of yoga flying? Why did she choose Sweden, of all countries? What is all this I read on her publisher's homepage about winning a green card in a lottery and moving to the US? What is her relationship to the bourgeois family at home (I as gratified to read of their welcoming attitude to Agneta's foreign boyfriends, one more eccentric than the other), and what has happened at Apollogatan during her life-long exile?

I obviously care about these specific things because some of her choices (and some of her background) remind me of my own. Were von Koskull to continue writing and focus on something else entirely – or indeed to move away from the autobiographical genre – I would be sure to remain loyal to her skill of observation and mastery of the turn of a phrase.

Highly recommended, a fairly quick and very satisfying read; but do read the previous book first.

Buy Mandala in Swedish from Schildts Förlag.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Agneta von Koskull: Savumerkkejä (Från Twenty Gold till Kent)

From: Passed, with its sequel, onto me off a friend who'd read them and has a totally zen attitude to book ownership.
When: Probably two, maybe even three years ago.
Verdict: One of my favourite books of all time.
Fate: Immediately passed on to an aunt who might also love it.

This book is written in Swedish. I read it in Finnish.

First of all: if you know Finnish or Swedish, you MUST read this book. Especially if you happened to grow up in or love Helsinki. In fact, if you just happen to love Helsinki, or weird and wonderful stories of bourgeois Scandinavian families (ranging from Tove Jansson to Ibsen and Strindberg) you must call a publisher immediately and demand an English translation.

Agneta von Koskull is born into an upper-class family at the exact point in the late 1940s when class society in the traditional sense is starting to disappear in the Nordic social democracies. But regardless of having lost their aristocratic status to history and their money to bad investments, the von Koskulls still remain elite in the cultural sense. Agneta herself will grow up to be a painter (this novel was her belated writing debut) and family life is an utterly civilized affair.

That said, the fifties childhood of Agneta and her sister Renata is not without its complications. Their parents' marriage is threatened by their mothers' periodic drinking and the girls themselves are not growing up at the same pace – Renata's friends, a particular nuisance, often preventing the younger girl from joining the most interesting games.

The whole novel is narrated, almost Portrait-of-the-Artist-style, in the utterly charming and plausible voice of a very young girl. Many of the laugh-out-loud funny bits, of which there seems to be one about every three pages, come from the deadpan way she observes phenomena of the grownup world. When the older girls take to spying on people in the Hesperia Park, for instance, their favourite catch is always a man lying on top of a woman, grunting. Agneta dislikes the sight of the grunting men, which makes the older girls snigger. The witnessing of sexual acts actually reoccurs at different points in the story, and von Koskull does an amazing job at reflecting the girl's developing understanding of what is going on without ever resorting to moralism or underestimating her child narrator.

The von Koskulls live on Apollogatan in Helsinki's Tölö, where I too grew up; I went to school across the street from the institution which young Agneta detests so that she will run off to Hamburg in time for the sequel. My recollections of the neighbourhood are, I realize, far more sentimental than hers. That von Koskull's Tölö is magical is a result not at all of any real properties of central Helsinki but of the fact, which she makes me remember vividly, that growing up anywhere can be both difficult and magical, and befuddling, and exciting.

Buy Från Twenty Gold till Kent at Akademiska Bokhandeln.

The Finnish edition regrettably seems to be out of print.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Deborah Cameron: The Myth of Mars and Venus

From: Bought at a talk the author gave to an Oxford Women's organization. Or rather ordered there, because the stall immediately ran out of copies.
When: January 17th, 08.
Verdict: Essential Reading
Fate: On loan to friends for purposes of spreading the awesome.

Deborah Cameron is an Oxford professor and one of the world's leading authorities on language and gender. I've been to a few of her faculty lectures as well as to the talk directly relating to this book, and highly recommend her public appearances if you get a chance to catch her somewhere. Smart as a whip, no-nonsense, well spoken and so funny. If she'd write a how-to book on public speaking I'd be first in line.

Until then I'm likely to be buying more copies of this one, since everyone I know would benefit from reading it. Cameron deftly and politely shreds all the biologist nonsense relating to male and female communication. She does not deny that there are both biological and cultural differences between women and well; that would be nonsensical. But she patiently and entertainingly walks the reader through media reports on "results" of scientific studies in the field of gender difference and language, and explains with reference to the data why the popular interpretations of what the information "means" or "proves" are wrong.

The key piece of information to take home is that men and women do not actually speak differently – not in pattern, aggression, tendency to interrupt, subject areas, nothing. That some studies would seem to point at such results is primarily a result of the recordings being made in situations where social status is divided along gender lines. It sucks, of course, that this is still the case in many areas, regardless whether men or women are coming out on top. But it does not equal proof of any inherent biological difference between language production and/or brain function in the sexes.

The reason this matters is twofold.

We do model ourselves and our behaviours, as well as our self-image, against cultural ideas of normalcy. If we think one set of behaviours or skills is more appropriate to or stronger in our gender than another, we might stymie talents and impulses contrary to that cultural preference for no reason. (There is that brilliant study, which I can't remember whether Cameron mentions, where girls get to read results of "scientific studies" about math proficiency and then sit a maths exam. Those who are told that women suck at the sciences will underperform in the test. And there are plenty of similar studies proving the same point).

The second reason this is important is that a cultural misunderstanding of the facts of linguistic competence leads directly to sexual discrimination. Women were long banned from many jobs because it was understood that they would be unable to communicate in an assertive enough style. These days, women are likelier than equally qualified men to get jobs in communication-oriented jobs like customer service on the phone. As popular management styles too become increasingly communicative, this development might actually benefit women. But it'd still be wrong since, and it bears repeating, there is no scientific proof suggesting that women are better communicators (or even "better listeners", whatever that means) than men. Luckily there is also no proof suggesting that we are unable to assert ourselves linguistically.

Basically, biology can't help us, and we're on our own. And I don't mind, as long as I have proof of girl awesome such as Deborah Cameron around to remind me what our individual potential amounts to.

Buy The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? on Amazon.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bret Easton Ellis: Water From The Sun And Discovering Japan

From: Blackwells… or Borders? In Oxford.
When: Hilary 08, when I was writing about psychos
Verdict: More than worth its price (one pound) and time (short)
Fate: Will hang on to it while considering whether to develop obsession with Bret Easton Ellis. Or until somebody else wants it real bad.

Procrastinating from what I was really meant to be doing, that is, reading American Psycho, I went out to buy everything else Brett Easton Ellis had ever written. Most of wasn't available in the Oxford stores, which I actually found quite surprising. But this little booklet sat on the shelf, looking very uncomfortable and alone wedged between all its full-sized neighbours. It had a pleasant red cover featuring an adorable drawing of Godzilla, and cost only a pound. There was no way I wasn't going to buy it.

The book contains two short stories, the first of which feels a little long. Both follow the alienated meanderings of a semi-famous protagonist, a divorced female news reader in the first and a washed-out rock star in the second. Both characters seek human contact, fail attempts at normal conversation and aim for some kind of solace in ultimately destructive sex. I much prefer the first character's doomed love affair with a basically clueless twink over the second's brutality towards his Asian groupies (prostitutes? It never becomes quite clear). I guess by the time I got around to reading this, I'd forgotten how shocking Ellis can be. Also, I'm not sure why so many short story writers choose to write about solitude and despair.

Still, it was pleasant to read skilled fiction about older characters. The hotel room antics in "Discovering Japan" can't help but bring Lost in Translation to mind, but of course the decay here is much, much worse, and for some reason I kept envisioning the main character as Bill Nighy channelling Iggy Pop. I think he's meant to be quite a lot younger, although to be fair a certain kind of drug use kind of seems to preserve the body in an unaltered state of harrowing mummification, which starts at 30, looks like 130, and stays exactly the same for whichever number of years the user has left in him. (This digression, in case you're wondering, serves no other purpose than to defend the rights of Mr Nighy to portray the character, should a movie of the short story ever be produced). There are some brilliantly painful scenes though, with the protagonist on the phone to old band mates, etc.

Come to think of it, "Water From the Sun" also contains some very fine moments, and I can see at least four separate milieus from it quite distinctly in my mind (the news studio, a diner, the bedroom, the ex husband's living room, all with quite specific atmospheres) – which again reminds me of the under-appreciated technical skill of Mr. Ellis.

Ellis has a style of writing that makes it seem very easy to write like him, much to the detriment of creative writing teachers everywhere. Although he sounds nothing like her, to me the voice is seductive like Virginia Woolf's, making me want to replace my own with his. I'm writing this a few months after finishing the book, so it's probably not evident in my language now, but I bet it were if I'd have just set it down.

Buy Water From The Sun on Amazon.
Buy American Psycho on Amazon.
Visit Lost in Translation on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Meg Cabot: Size 14 is Not Fat Either

From: A pocket book binge that left me with, like, twenty unread novels in a pile
When: I suspect the fall of 06
Verdict: Entertaining while read; fast forgotten
Fate: Charity

I absolutely love Meg Cabot's books for kids and teens (or rather "young adults", as they're called in Publisher English). They're clever and not lacking in themes or underlying ideas; her high school traumas are tempered by a common-sense feminism that is quite refreshing in the context of fashion-obsessed mediums or bohemian princesses royal. Also, the books are really funny.

But for some reason the chatty, sometimes giggly, often first-person story-telling becomes annoying in her novels for grown-ups. Reading Queen of Babble, for instance, primarily made me wanna shake the protagonist really hard. The "Heather Wells Mysteries" series, however, which started with Size 12 Is Not Fat, strikes a better balance, probably because the college dorm environment is similar to the high school world in which Cabot is so comfortable, and partly because the narrator is older than the kids around her. She already has a failed career as a teen pop sensation behind her (a fun idea, and quite appealing to a reader like me: I too have switched careers a few times during my twenties). Heather can see evil cheerleaders with a sense of perspective, even to the point of realizing that not all cheerleaders are in fact evil. For a grown-up reader using teen entertainment as a guilty-pleasure-entertainment, this is pretty much where we too stand.

Size 14 Is Not Fat Either includes some memorable imagery, like the severed head of a cheerleader boiling on a stove in a dorm cafeteria, and Manhattan paralyzed by a snow-storm that forces one character to actually ski across Central Park. The crime story itself is pretty lightweight in construction but that really does not matter, since it is fairly obvious that its importance to the novel is similar to those of Bridget Jones's career woes in Diary; they are there to entertain us and, possibly, offer the characters opportunities for insight and self-reflection. But the reading pleasure primarily derives from watching the protagonist negotiate romantic and familial relationships and societal expectations. As far as I'm concerned, any book that delivers on that pleasure defends its existence.

Not that I'm making any promises – this kind of literature is obviously not for everybody. But if you are able not to demand that Heather Wells be profound, Cabot might surprise you with moments of lucid insight into human behaviour and our pop culture obsessions.

Buy Size 14 Is Not Fat Either on Amazon
Buy Size 12 Is Not Fat on Amazon

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Josefine Adolfsson: Kårnulf Was Here

From: The publisher on a visit to his office
When: Summer 2004
Verdict: Worth Consuming
Fate: Given to ex-stepdaughter.

This book is Swedish. I read it in Swedish.

Why does it feel like I've come across so many autobiographical novels lately? This little book – it's small physically as well as attempting to, I think, keep its greater ambitions under the radar by pretending to be a romp as well as a tragedy – is apparently just that, although Adolfsson chooses to call it a "documentary novel".

Kårnulf was here is a simple first person narrative abut two teenage girls who are best friends, drink too much, take quite a lot of drugs and go to Berlin on terrifying adventures. Adolfsson is five years older than me, and I hardly ever broke any rules as a kid anyway, but in its description of a Scandinavian society in the late eighties and early nineties the world she writes is just close enough to my experience for me to feel that it is all true. Not even metaphorically: I felt when I read this book, even though it doesn't reference its sources and many section are written in a very free and disorganized style, that every word in it is literally true. There are, obviously, no guarantees that this is the case (nor does it matter if it's not). It is just as possible that the end, especially, represents a version of what might have happened, or what the author wuld have preferred to some even more depressing outcome.

Moa, the narrator, never quite loses her hold on reality and stays in school, gets on the education track and eventually becomes a journalist and a writer. Anna, her friend, makes a tentative truce with addiction but does not leave the environment which enables her abuse. Anna's little sister Ida and some other friends and acquaintances go so far to hell that society basically gives up on them.

Reading about kids on drugs is obviously pretty horrifying for anyone considering a family, but the bits about institutional attitudes to the young female addicts are the worst by far. Access to the Moa character, who is later mostly sober and educated and can sometimes interfere, sometimes alleviates the characters' struggles momentarily – one can't help thinking of those who have no such friend. Getting help, getting care and getting sober is difficult at best, and the educational, medical, legal and psychological institutions, it seems, are not convinced that the girls are not in these situations out of their own free will.

Adolfsson intersperses the text with quotes from historical official reports on maladjusted or delinquent girls. The novel is programmatic, and it seems to have two points: 1) that these kids are just that, kids, and what ever evil or selfishness or thoughtlessness or self-destructiveness they display is a side effect of qualities that in other teens lead to much milder forms of rebellion with typically less lethal and better-tolerated consequences, and 2) that given how little changed during the first 80 years of the last century in the understanding of this issue it is utopian to assume that the situation would have been significantly improved in the last twenty.

I don't think Adolfsson has written a sequel, but I would very much like to read more about her anger, about how someone who's made this journey to a completely different world, to art school and mainstream media and literary success, deals with her new network living completely unawares of the squalor to which so many of their countrymen are reduced. Kårnulf was here touches on the topic, but I am curious about how, say, another ten years will have altered Adolfsson's perspective, if at all.

I decided to send my copy to my ex step-daughter. She gets so many of my pink frothy hand-offs that I worry I've completely corrupted her literary taste. Also, there aren't that many books around with real stories about real young girls. Of course, Sara is 18 now; I probably would not have given the book to anyone under 15 years of age.

I realize reading this back that I never wrote that the book is funny and moving as well as depressing and anger-provoking. It is, all those things.

Buy Kårnulf was here on AdLibris.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Adam Hochschild: Bury the Chains

From: Bought at Borders to get context for paper on Atlantic slave literature.
When: Early in Trinity term 2008.
Verdict: Worth Consuming
Fate: Second hand/ Charity.

Hailing from a Northern European country technically speaking more colonized than ever imperialist, I knew very little – shockingly little – about the Atlantic slave trade, and had never been exposed to slave literature in school (it is apparently a common stop on the curriculum in both British and US educations). In fact, I had never heard of it as a genre until it popped up in the Romantics period paper at university.
Since my brain is like a sieve if deprived of historical information to attach the cultural stuff onto, I went to the book store in search of context. There I found this book, which proved so useful, exciting and inspirational that although I had mined it for exams, I decided to read it properly immediately after Finals.

Bury the Chains tells two main stories, and from a PC perspective it could perhaps be construed as a little problematic that its red thread is a "white" story – that of the unrelenting abolitionist activists without whom the cause against slavery would probably have moved much slower. This same story is, on the other hand, the strength of the book: Hochschild takes us back to the roots of the modern political movement and the small group of men (and some women) who basically invented the tools of the mass campaign. The power of a few individuals to change minds on a massive level is convincingly argued and, I believe, the point of the book. The kinds of challenges now faced by humanity require change that many would consider unthinkable – but then so was ending the slave trade, necessary perhaps and morally right, but economically and practically "impossible". Yet, as Hochschild shows, a surprisingly small number of people (both those he chronicles and those he only nods at) changed the minds of the western world in only a generation.

The hard-working Quakers and ardent Anglican campaigners make for an appealing group of heroes, and Hochschild turns on the storyteller to create for the reader a vivid idea especially of family life and customs in England in a time of revolutions. If he fares less well with bringing to life the other story, that of the "Sixty Million and more" to whom Tony Morrison dedicated Beloved, that is also because the reader resists the information. My mind at least recoils at the scale and depth of the torture the slave trade involved: the uprooted millions, the torments of the passage, the cruelty and lawlessness of the majority of slave owners, the economical structures that made it all possible. (The same out-of-sight-out-of-mind-mechanic which of course enables us to be blind to slavery today).

There is nothing pleasant about reading those harrowing sequences, whereas it is very pleasant indeed to read about Granville Sharp's family orchestra in a barge on the Thames, and this places an uncomfortable imbalance at the heart of the book. For a reader like me, though, who came to the topic with only scant information, there is more than enough on conditions, practices and policies to feel that I now have at least some idea of the atrocities – if only on a level primarily useful as general background for, say, the US elections or news from Haiti.

Hochschild uses sources – legal and literary, journals and eye-witness reports – to fluently aid his description, but few of the slaves whose names are now remembered lived long enough to get to stay with the narrative for the many decades it covers. The "celebrities", as it were, are there, of course, and this is not at all a bad book to read for context on a writer like Olaudah Equiano (in some editions of his work known by his slave name of Gustavus Vassa). Hochschild does what he can with the available material, but inevitably, the panorama is one of blacks who struggle for their lives and lose, and whites who struggle against the system and ultimately prevail.

Knowing a fair deal about the period and, by the time I returned to the book, about British slave literature, I sometimes felt that the way Hoschschild presented especially literary sources was imprecise. I found myself going "Yes, that's true, but on you should also say…" – but I guess this is how all popular history works, and true by necessity of any work this wide in scope. Bury the Chains served my purpose very well and I recommend it as an introduction to the topic of slavery and abolition. That it is also an inspirational read for anyone wishing to change the world is an added bonus.

OK, I know you wanna see a picture of the Sharp Family Orchestra on their barge, and naturally my favourite museum, the National Portrait Gallery, has one.

Buy Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery on Amazon.

PS. I'm pretty sure I still have another book by Hochschild, in Swedish - Kung Leopold's Vålnad (King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism), an award-winning bestseller on atrocities and eccentricities in colonial Congo. Having narrowly avoided having it sent to me from the historical book club, I succumbed in the same year when the hard cover was cheap at the sale of the student book store at the Frescati campus of Stockholm University. Now I quite hope I haven't given it away; if Hochschild's formula is mixing "Greed, Terror and Heroism" I already know it'll be both thought-provoking and a good read.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tom Wolfe: I Am Charlotte Simmons

From: The English Bookshop i Århus, while actually buying Christmas gifts for my family members.
When: December, 2007
Verdict: Vivid but flawed (or perhaps just pessimistic).
Fate: Second hand/ Charity

I wanted to read this book since it was published, and the wait has been especially hard since my copy has such a satisfying cover, with the title laid out as a swooshy print on a midriff-baring t-shirt on some faceless coed hottie. Having read the book, which incidentally felt about two hundred pages too long, I'm not so sure about that cover anymore. It seems to suffer from the same unease about gender roles that plagues the novel as a whole, and which may be brilliant but is probably just pessimistic. Possibly I came to the book with the wrong expectations, but I should say that this was hardly my fault, since the expectations were based entirely on the cover, the title and the first few chapters.

Charlotte Simmons is poor – a child of the working poor – a scion of a rural village so tiny and remote that no-one's ever heard of it. But Sparta, North Carolina, is always audible in her speech, visible in her dress, the foundation of her attitudes; in the unforgettable phrase of the team of writers currently performing as "Cecily von Ziegesar", she is "a Podunk loser, a Wal-Mart frequent shopper".

Charlotte also happens to be really, really, really bright, to have access to a good teacher, and a chance for a place in any of the Ivies. The book follows her fledgling career as a full-scholarship girl at the fictional Dupont university, and her first contacts with peer pressure, sex, alcohol, drugs, the casual cruelty of the privileged, and especially their laziness, which seems to surprise and annoy the author as much as it does Charlotte. Tom Wolfe has no patience with way many of the very expensively educated choose to view college as a four-year fuck-about, a carnival environment in which to blow off steam until the real world arrives with its demands, duties and expectations.

I myself went to Oxford as a 24-year old who already had a career, an identity and a serious boyfriend, so my situation was very different from Charlotte's, but, admittedly, I do recognize myself both in the outsider perspective on an elite institution and in the range of reactions of the students in general to its traditions. Perhaps this is also why the book ultimately felt so disappointing and, for lack of a better word, dirty. I had expected to identify with the main character, but ss the book progresses Charlotte rapidly loses definition as a person, a fictional character and a female of the species. Described as they are as contributing to her doom, I found it almost impossible to transfer my allegiance onto any of the other characters.

Although it's set up as a story about different kinds of capital – cultural, economic, social – I Am Charlotte Simmons isn't really about class. It's about three models of masculinity, represented by Charlotte's three boyfriends: the obnoxious frat beefcake, the bumbling super-jock celeb, and the ambitious ultra-geek. The story requires Charlotte to date all three, but this set-up feels entirely contrived. Wolfe explains the development with Charlotte's combination of sexual attractiveness and innocence, describing it in language which veers between nostalgia and voyeurism and often makes me physically uncomfortable. In the process, the title character becomes a servant wench to the structure of the novel. As the phrase "I am Charlotte Simmons" loses its meaning for the protagonist, rapidly subsumed in the push-pull of the college universe around her, it also loses its meaning for the reader, and the novel flounders.

I admit that might be the point. I admit Wolfe might be saying that no matter what kind of masculinities Charlotte interacts with, a bright young woman aspiring to a the social elite will have to compromise to be accepted. To sacrifice at least some of her brilliance and independence and most of her core values not to be considered unattractive, and to become both entirely predictable and entirely forgettable in the process, much like Charlotte does within the book. This kind of meta trickery is ofl course also possible to reconcile with the journalistic method of the novel as a whole, since it is indeed a fact that a lot of people of both sexes who go to really good schools end up disappointing themselves and everyone else. It is, however, a stunted and bitter conclusion to a novel about the next generation of world leaders.

The craft involved is still impressive. When Wolfe writes the characters' most secret thoughts, it makes me wonder whether this, too, is interview material. Does he empathize and understand this well, or is he – as astonishingly – able to create such trust in the interview situation that it becomes like therapy to the people who will be his characters? I don't know anything about his method, but this book makes me curious to find out, and I'm likely to spend time with both his journalism and his other novels in the future.

Buy I Am Charlotte Simmons on Amazon.

PS The kind of partying-induced slacking off described in the novel is harder to pull off at Oxford or Cambridge, where you meet your tutors weekly. The independence and anonymity of a normal type of university education – like that offered at "Dupont" – is a destructive companion to a cultural expectation that higher education is inseparable from constant intoxication.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Alan Moore's Writing For Comics Volume 1

From: Bought at the Helsinki Comic Book Festival.
When: Unclear. In the 00s, but almost certainly before I was ever asked to be a scriptwriter for comics myself.
Verdict: Mostly for fans; moderately useful for the beginning scriptwriter.
Fate: Gave it as a gift to Rachel, a classmate who wants a career in graphic novels.

This book is very strange in that most of it is written in the 1980s, but a last chapter glued onto the original fanzine content in the mid-90s documents Alan Moore's changing attitude to his own work and methods. He essentially says, that while everything in the booklet is sound advice, he himself would under no circumstances work in the described fashion any longer. Once you've mastered a style, it is time to move on, and some of the devices from the Swamp Thing years described and recommended in the first part were becoming clichés even as he wrote about them. (In my glorious master Moore's defense, although he does not say so, they were becoming clichéd because both instantly recognizable and widely copied).

To me, Writing For Comics is more interesting as a window onto a writer's thoughts about his method than as a tool of figuring one out for yourself (and, anyway, the kind of pseudo manga I work with is very, very different from graphic novels of this type). As far as I can tell there is no "Vol 2", but I quite wish there were: Alan Moore's work has changed so much, and he has spoken so very interestingly of it in interviews, that I can't imagine he wouldn't have a whole deal more to share should he wish to. In fact, for most readers, turning to the following Salon interviews, from 2004 and 2000 is probably a more sensible use of time than reading the book. Nevertheless, I passed my copy on to a mate who has graphic novelism as her career goal.

Buy Writing for Comics: 1 at Amazon UK.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

One Additional Exception

My best friend Jaakko admitted that he had considered buying me any number of books for my birthday, then stopped himself, then considered buying them anyway and claiming to have done so before the Embargo, then not done so because he was actually a supporter of the Embargo, then threw his hands up in despair and asked whether the rule really, really had to apply to comics and graphic novels?

About a week in, I was starting to feel desperate myself, and said that he could, absolutely, give me comics. In retrospect, it was just book greed, but at the time I felt that it was reasonable, since comics are generally read faster, and I'm allowed to buy single issues anyway. Since I am actually in the industry, I could have added that all comics also qualify as necessary research, except that it's not really necessary, and I have plenty of comics I haven't had time to get around to on account of my Oxford Finals.

But the exception has been made, and it stands.

"Good idea, anyway, this Embargo," Jaakko says; he is an expert in all kinds of guilt and understood exactly how I felt. "But it requires its own blog."

So here we are.

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Rules of the Book Embargo

These are the rules of the Book Embargo.

Until the end of the year 2010, I will buy no books for myself (gifts to others are OK). I will respectfully ask my closest friends and relatives – those likeliest to give me books as gifts – not to give me any either.

The cut-off date has been chosen to fit an MA degree, since I know from my BA years that the discipline of reading study materials will actually make me manically stock up on novels and contemporary affairs books that "to read later", as though there will be no bookstores later, and as though those same books would not be cheaper to buy later.

These are the exceptions to the Book Embargo

1) People who have bought me books before being told can give them to me.

2) People can gift me with books that have a deeper, personal significance than "I like you". These kinds of book gifts range from, say, my gran making sure I get her copy of Scarlett, or my grandad giving me his personal copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

3) I can buy or receive books that are necessary for work or study and cannot reasonably be expected to borrow from a library, either because I will need them for long-term use, or because I will need to write in them.

4) In emergencies, like being trapped in a transit area waiting for a trans-Atlantic flight that is 14 hours late and having read everything in the carry-on, I can buy a book. But after having finished it, I must immediately give it away.

(People have been very critical about exception four, although I can't actually imagine a situation where I could use it. Even in the example above, I could totally read a Vanity Fair and then watch movies the whole flight).

5) My boyfriend can give me books.

Actually, we haven't talked this through in any systematic way, but basically, he will buy books and some of them will be for me, and I am too weak-willed (and smitten) to turn down any kind of love gift.

My family received the Rules fairly gracefully. For my thirtieth birthday, I received only one book, and that was a coffee table book from my godfather whose work featured heavily on its pages (entirely acceptable under exception 2).

My best friend practically cried, until I had agreed to one more exception.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Need For the Book Embargo

Two weeks before my thirtieth birthday I sent out an email to my loved ones. I was only beginning to recover from the traumatic process of collecting my possessions, spread out in five apartments in four countries, into a sixth apartment in a fifth country – my new home where I was to make a life with the love of my life. He knew, of course, that I am a bibliophile with a literature, but I suspect he had not entirely understood what that ultimately entails. At the time of the email our life together was starting to seem practically impossible: much as I love him, I was not entirely certain there was space for him in our apartment. My boyfriend is very tall.

I had made a radical cull of my book collection in Sweden, given boxes of books to charities in Finland, and sold a back-breaking load of text books back to Blackwell's in Oxford, from which I scored a fortune in cash (nowhere close to the cost of mailing the remainder to Denmark). Now I was sitting in Århus with books for several lifetimes, chuffed-looking postmen delivering additional boxes daily, a desperate dearth of shelf space and an overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilt about the money I'd spent on these books, and about all the books I'd been given as gifts and had hardly looked at, ecological guilt, and something more profound relating to my life-style choices during the past fifteen years, which made me feel equally awful about the time I'd spent reading and the time I'd spent doing anything else. This is when I thought up the embargo.

I asked my boyfriend for his views, and he agreed to it on two conditions: that he would still be allowed to buy books for himself, and that he would still be allowed to give me books as gifts. Secretly relieved, since I saw in this a convenient loophole, I immediately agreed. Then I made up some rules, and emailed my family an apologetic email. Everyone I love also loves books, and I was worried that they would not understand how suffocated I was suddenly feeling. I guess I worried that they'd somehow take it personally. They all have great taste in books. I wrote to them that this, exactly, was the POINT – that I wanted a chance to read the books they'd already given me.

I'd already gotten rid of every book, even the good ones, that I felt fairly certain I would never want to read again. The goal of the embargo would be to continue this process, and gain some kind of equilibrium, in which the total amount of books in the apartment would in the future be lower rather than higher.

Equilibrium: I only realized it as I wrote the word just now, but although libra means balance, librarius means relating to books. This connection is what had become skewed in my life.