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.