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.