Aug 13, 2020

Virtual Worldcon: Conventions in the Time of Coronavirus


I attended my first virtual convention a few weeks ago, ConZealand (the 78th Worldcon). This was my second Worldcon, with Helsinki as my first. I know many people were disappointed when Worldcon went virtual, but for people like me who couldn't have attended the con at all if it had been in New Zealand, this was actually a great opportunity to participate after all. I purchased my membership right after the announcement with very little expectations as to what the con would actually be like, figuring that at least the money would go to a good cause, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. 

There are actually many advantages to a virtual convention: no standing in line, everybody fits into the "room" for whichever panel they want to watch, and, best of all, as most panels/events were recorded, people could watch them at their leisure. The program could be accessed through Grenadine, which had links to Zoom for the actual panels. For most panels only the panelists could turn their video and microphones on and everybody else was automatically muted, which made attending the panels stress-free, and joining a panel late didn't disturb anyone. ConZealand used Discord for discussions (the panel "rooms"), and they had also created spaces there for virtual bars, the consuite, etc. There was a place to post cosplay pics, and the Masquerade also went virtual. Additional content could be found on the ConZealand site, like virtual tours of New Zealand (I especially loved my virtual visit to Hobbiton) and a virtual exhibition hall, art show, and the recorded panels. 

My experience, technology-wise, went quite smoothly. I was familiar with Discord from a writing course that used it for discussions, and Zoom was quite easy to figure out. I had no trouble logging in, and all the panels I watched live or from recording went smoothly. The only issues I had were with the Larry Dixon and Mercedes Lackey panels (the guests of honour), because they were unable to use Zoom and Discord didn't actually work too well. As I understand it, you can't mute or turn off cameras for the audience in Discord, and that was a problem. I can't speak for the writing workshops or kaffeeklatsches, because I didn't attend any due to the time difference. (Most of those happened in the middle of the night European time.) The Hugo awards broadcast had some technical issues, but that was the worst of it. 

Speaking of the Hugo awards, that was the only thing that soured the con experience a bit for me. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can catch up here.) I mostly enjoyed Martin's hosting and found his anecdotes about former Hugo ceremonies entertaining, but some of the jokes did make me a bit uncomfortable. I do see the point of the people who took offence, but I also felt a bit sorry for Martin, because I genuinely believe he didn't mean to hurt anyone or exclude people. I watched the rest of his panels and he was feeling very nostalgic, and that was probably why he included the stories he did. Some of the fault also lies with the con organisers, because they should have seen to things like sending Martin the correct pronunciations of the finalists' names. If they had looked through the material, maybe they could have discussed the potentially offensive bits with Martin and taken them out. But as I'm looking at this from a position of privilege, my opinion doesn't really matter. For what it's worth, Martin did apologise. Hopefully the next Worldcon will do better. 

All in all, virtual Worldcon was a positive experience for me and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone considering attending a virtual convention. (There's one this Saturday, ReCONvene, if anyone's interested. Membership is only 10 dollars.) As far as I can see, I did all of the things I would have done at a regular convention, watched panels, met people, joined in discussions. Maybe I would have attended a party or two or a workshop at a regular con. If DisCon III, the next Worldcon, goes virtual, I'll definitely attend. 

May 15, 2020

Reading the Classics: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster comprises three novels: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room, published in 1985-1986. The novels are considered a masterpiece of postmodern literature, reason enough in itself to read them, I suppose, but I discovered the trilogy when a friend recommended it to me, saying that reading it felt like having your brain gently stroked. That's a pretty great recommendation!

Once I started writing this review, I found myself, not for the first time, wishing I had attended some English Lit classes. For example, what's the difference between modernism and postmodernism? A quick google search failed to yield a simple definition, but apparently modernist works are based between late 1800s and the Second World War, and postmodernism appeared on the scene after that. The University of Turku study guide places the cutoff at 1960, but apparently some definition lean towards 1980. Here's a helpful article at

 When I think of modernist works of literature, writers like Joyce, Kafka, and Proust come to mind. Postmodernists . . . well, I think of Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the more experimental science fiction of the time (John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, anyone?). Both movements aimed to create a new kind of novel. Modernists brought us unreliable narrators, stream-of-conciousness, and experimental structures. Postmodern novels seem to focus even more on playing with the novel form, metafiction, and an ironic point-of-view. Many postmodern works feel a bit empty to me, like intellectual exercises rather than an actual story meant to touch the reader on an emotional level. Sometimes they come across as pretentious and needlessly complicated, sometimes enjoyable in the way that I enjoy a solving a puzzle. For me, The New York Trilogy landed in the latter category.

Oh yeah, spoilers ahead :)

For me, City of Glass was the hardest of the novels to wrap my mind around. A bit about the plot:  pulp writer Daniel Quinn takes a case meant for Paul Auster the detective and begins investigating Peter Stillman the elder because Stillman's daughter-in-law suspects he is coming to kill his son Peter Stillman the younger, whom he kept isolated from the world as a child because of some crackpot theories about the Tower of Babel.

First you have to figure out the characters: there's Daniel Quinn, the detective story writer who answers a wrong number and begins investigating a case meant for Paul Auster, the detective who is also a writer. This Paul Auster isn't the author of the novel, though. And then there's the narrator who is telling the story, who is a friend of Paul Auster, the detective-writer and is telling the story because Auster gave him the red notebook Quinn left behind and had written the story in. Confused yet? Yup.

Paul Auster the detective and Daniel Quinn seem to be mirror characters in several ways:

Auster/ Quinn

Detective who is also a writer / pulp writer who takes on the role of detective
Happily married with a son/ Alone, son dead
In control of his life/ Life feels empty, suffering from writer's block

The further you read, the more you start to question whether Auster the detective is even real, or only a side of Quinn's personality. In the beginning of the book Quinn wishes he were more like the fictional detective he writes about, and very conveniently the opportunity for a Noble Quest presents itself. And speaking about quests, Daniel Quinn, who takes his quest to protect Peter Stillman the younger to an absurd level, is very similar to a certain Don Quixote, and they both share the initials D. Q.. Just to make sure the reader gets it, Auster the detective/writer is writing an article on the identity of the author of Cervantes' Don Quixote. According to him, there are several possible authors for Don Quixote, and there are several possible authors for City of Glass. (In case you missed the Quixote connection the first time, you should read that bit again. If you've been taking City of Glass Very Seriously, you might feel a bit offended.) There might have been a lot more nods to Don Quixote, since I read the book as a teen and passionately hated the title character,  I don't really recall it all that well. (Not about to read it again. Walden's been on my reading list for a while, though.)

What about the title, City of Glass? Glass is fragile, and there certainly are fragile people in the story. It's also transparent, maybe that has something to do with being watched or the reader watching the characters or Quinn watching Stillman? And there's glass as in looking glass. There's a lot of mirror characters here, Quinn/Auster and the two Stillman the elders at the train station, Quinn/Don Quixote.    I dunno. 

I did enjoy the whole playing-with-languge thing in the bit where Quinn reads about Stillman's theory and I found the plot interesting enough that I wanted to see where it was going, but on the whole I failed to connect with Quinn or the other characters enough that I could say I liked the book. I appreciate it for its twisty-turny puzzle of a plot and for making me think, but do I want to read it again or anything else by Auster? Not really. 

In Ghosts, we have another private eye named Blue investigating a man named Black on the behalf of a man named White and so on. Everybody's named after colours, and there's some (pseudo?)philosophical stuff about what colours are associated with. Turns out that Black and White are the same person, shocker. Once again the private eye becomes lost in another persons life. And there's that bit about how writing's a lonely job and how a writer doesn't have a life of his own or even really exist. That probably has something to do with the title.

I really liked the conversation that Blue had with Black about how real-life anecdotes are meaningful as metaphors because they're true. I have no idea if the events mentioned are indeed true (the one about Whitman's brain, for example), but they're fascinating and maybe even say something about how a writer's mind works. I collect weird little tales like that, and a lot of writers I've read about do too. Maybe it's about how people understand things through stories. Here, again, I'm unsure if Blue is actually a real person. In the end Black says that Blue was necessary and important to get this far and that he knows the story by heart even if he hasn't read it. Is Blue only a part of the whole Black/White organism, like a character in a story, doomed to be manipulated by the author?

The Locked Room was my favourite in the trilogy. Again, we have the narrator, a a journalist with literary aspirations, who unwittingly becomes a detective when his childhood friend Fanshawe disappears and bequeathes to him a closetful of unpublished manuscripts and his wife and son. Again, the narrator becomes lost in another man's life and almost loses himself and everything he values.

There's a neat scene at the beginning when the narrator recalls an episode who Fanshawe as a child gave a birthday present to another boy who didn't have one to bring to the party. A selfless act, right? Then we read on and we learn that Fanshawe is alive and abandoned his wife and son. The manuscripts he left become bestsellers and the narrator marries the wife and becomes the boy's father. Is this a selfless act by Fanshawe, where he gives everything to his friend, or an ultimately selfish act, because he abandons his family? The reason he gives is that he can't publish his works unless people think he's dead. Another apparently selfless act is when Fanshawe nurses his dying father in his last days. But then we see another side of Fanshawe, how he gathers experiences to write about (there's every bohemian writer cliché from moving to Paris to the apparently mandatory brothel visit). Are all his selfless acts more about experiencing things than about people?  

The Locked Room raises the question of whether a writer can ever have a normal life, or is he/she always alone because he must reject his family and friends to gain the experiences a writer needs to write? Again, in the end the reader begins to suspect whether the narrator and Fanshawe are really the same person, that person killing the writer part of himself enjoy his time with his family. I'm not certain how to interpret the title. Sure, there's a locked room at the end, but there isn't really a locked room mystery here. Oh, and Peter Stillman makes an appearance. Is he the same one from City of Glass? And Quinn is mentioned, but referred to as a detective. 

All the novels share a frame of the detective story, but they're not really detective stories. Most of the time the endings are open and nothing really gets resolved. It's more about playing with the idea of writing literary fiction in a pulp framework. On a thematic level, all of the novels have in common the idea of the loss of identity. The narrators appear unreliable, and the reader can't even be sure the characters exist, much less what happens to them.

Despite all of my (over)analysing, I don't feel that The New York Trilogy is a difficult book to read. Sure, you have to pay attention, but the prose is very functional and easy to read, no convoluted sentences or difficult metaphors. If you want to try Auster, the trilogy is surprisingly short, only about three hundred pages.

After reading the book I was curious about how much of it was autobiographical, so I looked up a few articles on Auster. Here's one on The Guardian website I found interesting, in case anyone wants to check it out :

Just a heads-up, seems that I can't reply to comments on the blog. I have no idea why. But feel free to leave a comment, anyway. 

Apr 19, 2020

Life in the Time of COVID-19: How to Stay Sane in Self-Quarantine

COVID-19. Even for an introvert like me this whole social distancing thing is getting old by now. I miss being around people. Who knew? Here's a few things to help relieve the tedium and to keep from obsessing over the news 24/7. 

Do some writing, maybe a story set in quarantine or involving an epidemic? A writer, much like Doctor Who, can travel in time and space so we're never really locked up. 

Writing not your thing? Luckily there are thousands of ready-made portals into strange lands around. Just jump in! This is the perfect time to read your favourite series, the longer the better. 

What about that classic you've been trying to plough through? I'm FINALLY going to finish In Search of Lost Time. I've been averaging about one book per year so I should be done by now. Why did it take me this long? Funny story, I lost the last volume. (Yeah, I'm aware of the irony.) But now I ordered a new copy so no more excuses, especially since the missing one turned up two weeks afterwards, grrr . . . 

Do some baking, something silly and time consuming. For ideas, check out Deceptive Desserts: A Lady's Guide to Baking Bad by Christine McConnell or the English Heritage site for Victorian recipes straight out of a Dickens novel (with instructional videos). 

Try a video game. Saving the world is quite therapeutic, and you get that sense of being abroad even though you're sitting at home. I've been enjoying the first Witcher game a lot. 

Bummed out about all the spring/summer events getting canceled? Sign up for a virtual sci-fi convention! Worldcon decided not to cancel and went virtual instead.

If all else fails, alcohol. (Just kidding)

What are you doing to keep calm and carry on?

Oct 21, 2019

Reading the Classics: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Image from Wikipedia 

And now for something completely different! Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, published 1979, is just that, a gloriously, breathlessly bonkers book that makes you smile. You might groan at the term "postmodernist novel"and grumble when you hear that part of the book is written in second person and the novel has an experimental structure, but don't let that put you off; this is a page-turner.

The novel starts in second person, telling you the Reader to put your feet up and start reading. Just when you get comfortable, the book changes on you. Turns out that there's been a mistake at the printer's, and after the opening chapter of Winter's Night, the novel continues as something completely different. And so it goes, over and over, the chapters of book openings alternating with the frame story of the Reader meeting Ludmilla (the Female Reader, I read this in Finnish so I'm not sure how the English translators handled this, Other Reader?). They try to get to the bottom of the mystery, and most importantly, keep reading.

This is the first 2nd person narrative that I've actually enjoyed, but I did get jolted out of the book a few times because the second person narrative assumes that the reader is male. The female Reader is addressed in second person in a short segment, but I didn't really relate to her, either. So there is bit of that indignant "no, I'm not" feel that you get in second person narratives, but it didn't keep me from enjoying the novel. 

The opening chapters that make up half the book are fun in their own right: each one is written in a different style in a different genre, some done better than others. Many of them are so engaging that I actually felt the Reader's frustration. And I love the last Easter Egg revelation of what happens when you read all the chapter titles in one go. 

This is very much a book about reading and writing, and I very much enjoyed reading Calvino's insight on the writer's mind and on why we read. 

As a writer, I think it's important to experience different kinds of books, and this is inventive and unique without being only an intellectual exercise or impossible to read.

 I highly recommend this book if you can handle a bit of surrealism and experimental narratives. If you can get through the first few chapters, you won't have any trouble. And as Calvino points out, it's a short book. 

Aug 21, 2019

Reading the Classics: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Hey, I'm back and I've got a new Reading the Classics post for you! At 672 pages The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe isn't exactly a beach read, but summer's almost over anyway, right? If you've been reading the blog, you probably know I've got a soft spot for Gothic novels, and I've come across references to Udolpho many times in modern and period fiction (most notably Jane Austen's Gothic novel parody Northanger Abbey), so I finally decided to give it a go.

Udolpho tells the story of Emily St. Aubert, a young Frenchwoman who gets orphaned and placed in the care of her unfeeling aunt, Madame Cheron. Emily has fallen in love with Valancourt, who she met while traveling with her father, but her aunt forbids her to marry him. When Madame Cheron marries the unscrupulous Signor Montoni, Emily is forced to leave her home and the man she loves to accompany her aunt to Italy, where Montoni's true character is revealed and the two women are placed in mortal peril.     

Radcliffe's novels were hugely popular in their time, and Udolpho, published in 1794, is widely considered to be her defining work. I was expecting atmospheric passages of description, an intriguing plot, and some element of the supernatural, but most of all I was expecting to be entertained. Unfortunately that didn't happen: I found this book a chore to get through. 

The book is filed under speculative fiction at the library of Turku, but while Radcliffe teases the reader with supernatural happenings, they always get explained away. And the passages of description, while atmospheric, were just too numerous and tedious for the modern reader. The plot could have been intriguing, had the book been about 300 pages shorter, and I also disliked the way Radcliffe tries to create suspense by locking the reader out at key points of the story, like the bit where Emily looks behind the veil at Castle Udolpho and sees something horrible. The revelation comes at the end of the book, but at that point it's quite anticlimactic.

The structure of the book is also a bit weird. The main conflict gets resolved, but the story goes on for hundreds of pages after the fact fuelled by a revelation of Valancourt's misdeeds that make Emily reject his proposal again.  For me this felt a bit forced. I tried to figure out what bothered me about the structure, and I realised that it's the way the love story is handled: Valancourt is absent for most of the book, and as you need obstacles for the whole star-crossed lovers thing to work, something has to get in the way of their happy ending. The problem is that this didn't feel organic or natural to me, perhaps because of a lack of foreshadowing. The introduction of Blanche at the end of the book annoyed me, because at that point I was pretty frustrated with the book and just wanted to finally finish it, especially after Radcliffe tested my patience with that pointless bit where Emily is taken to a cottage and then back to the castle. And don't get me started on the bad poetry Emily writes.

Emily as a character didn't really resonate with me. Mostly it feels like (bad) things just happen to her and she doesn't really do much about it. And boy, does she faint a lot! While it's a good thing that Emily doesn't get rescued by Valancourt, she doesn't exactly get herself out of Castle Udolpho either. Most of the other character feel quite stereotypical, too, but is that because Radcliffe has been widely imitated later?

So, what did I learn as a writer? Radcliffe is great at atmospheric descriptions, and that's something to pay attention to, but too much of a good thing is really too much.

I can't actually recommend this novel to anybody, but if you're interested in the evolution of the novel form and Gothic literature, by all means pick up a copy from the library.

And if you're reading Udolpho as an assignment for class, I've got a little something to make it more bearable. I present to you:

The Castle of Udolpho Drinking Game

The rules: take a sip every time:

- Emily admires the landscape
- Something is described as "melancholy"
- Emily faints
- Montoni does something villainous
- Emily thinks she's going to get attacked by bandits and isn't
- Valancourt gets shot


Nov 1, 2018

Graveyard Cake for Halloween

Since we're doing some work on the house, I won't be having a Halloween party this year. I didn't want to miss the fun entirely so I made this graveyard cake for game night at a friend's house.

Not bad for a first attempt. It was downright tasteful before I added the pink monsters and the jelly bugs, but more is more, right? The tree, fence and cat I made myself by drizzling dark chocolate on parchment paper with a teaspoon, which was surprisingly easy. Mistakes don't matter too much, because once the chocolate hardens you can just snap off the extra bits. 

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Oct 23, 2018

The Carnival of Lights at Linnanmäki and the Amazing Amos Rex

It's that time of the year again when the trees shed their glorious autumn leaves and everything turns grey, dark, and dismal. Fortunately Linnanmäki amusement park had its annual Carnival of Light again this year. We didn't go on any rides this year (because of The Babe), but the cotton candy popcorn and hot chocolate and the gloriously creepy haunted carnival ambiance were enough for me.  Here are a few pics if you missed the festivities.

This was The Babe's favourite. She kept pointing and going "Ka" which is her word for "duck" (ankka in Finnish).

I love this old carousel!

The ferris wheel in the distance


We also visited Amos Rex, the new museum in Helsinki city center. The exhibition by TeamLab, a Tokyo-based interdisciplinary art collective, is just mind-blowing. My favourite was an installation that had a sort of tropical fantasy world that was constantly on the move, and it was interactive, so when you touched the wall, flowers blossomed, and you could create your own fantasy animal that then became part of the installation. The Babe had the best time chasing after them.  It's running until January 6 if anyone wants to check it out.