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. 

Oct 15, 2018

Into the Woods

Autumn is my favourite time for enjoying nature: nice, cool weather and minimal bugs, not to mention all the leaves turning gorgeous colours. Here are a few snaps from last week's walk near Porvoo. (The trail leaves near Haikko manor and is only about 2.5 km long if anyone wants to give it a go.)

A beautiful lake

Here's a painting Albert Edelfelt did at the lake

Lingonberry leaves just turning

I'm not sure what this is called in English, but in Finnish it's karhunsammal, bear's moss, because it's a nice, soft place for a bear to take a nap on.

Are you looking at the trees or are they looking at you?

Ferns carpet the forest floor

Ant metropolis

Fairy tree

Do you dare venture off the beaten path?

Oct 8, 2018

Book Fair Time!

I made it to the book fair this year, yay!

There was all kinds of weird stuff for sale, like this beautiful book called The Witch Doll and a practical guide to telepathy.

I had a pretty good haul this year: I finally found Howl's Moving Castle in Finnish and a bunch of Roald Dahl books, all of which I'm collecting for when The Tot is old enough to read them. (I also got a mountain of Spot books, because I'm getting sick of reading the two we have, and some Christmas presents.)

Sep 30, 2018

Writing When You Have Small Children: Mission Impossible?

As you might have noticed, juggling writing and parenting is an issue I've been struggling with since The Babe (who is now The Toddler, my how time flies!) entered my life. It started even before that, during the pregnancy: I just couldn't write through the nausea and exhaustion, and even when I felt okay, there were a million things to take care of before the baby came. And when she did arrive, most days were just a struggle to cope. Suffice to say, barely any writing got done during the first year.

But, things are looking up! Behold, posts have appeared on the blog fairly regularly for the past few weeks. Granted, not three a week, but even one or two a month is progress at this point. I'm finally reading The Kalevala, the Finnish national epoch, something I've needed to do so I can finish two short stories, and I'm actually making steady progress on the first of those stories. I managed to edit and send a story to the Portti competition. I wrote a bit of flash last week. This is all good.

So, how did I get back into a writing routine? I tried several things, some more successful than others.

First, I tried to write during The Babe's naptime. Worked better in theory, because The Babe refused to sleep on her own and would start awake every time I tried to open my laptop. In the last few months this has gotten better, and now I mostly get about half an hour to an hour of writing time most days. So, this is definitely something to try, especially if your kid is a good sleeper and you're not too tired to actually write. (Sometimes you need a nap just as bad as the baby.)

Second, I tried to get my husband to watch the baby for an hour every night so I could write. This, too, proved better in theory. Something always came up and I felt guilty for prioritising writing over family time or chores or whatever. I could also hear the baby through the closed door and usually caved if she was being very fussy.

Third, I decided that I needed to get away from home altogether to get anything done, so every weekend I'd get my laptop and head over to the library or a coffee shop for a few hours of uninterrupted writing time while the baby hung out with her daddy. This was also a good strategy and something I will be doing regularly in the future.

Fourth, and this one is a double-edged sword, I'm trying to sneak in some writing after The Babe is asleep for the night. That's actually when I'm writing this post. The trouble is that my own sleep gets cut short, so it's not ideal, and I tend to get carried away and stay up until after midnight if the writing's rolling along nicely.

My advice to new parents with writerly ambitions is to grab any writing time when you can, where you can, even if it's just fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes a day adds up to almost two hours a week, which isn't too shabby. You can also do a lot of planning and thinking while hanging out at the playground or washing dishes, which saves you time when you're writing. Find what works for you. And most important of all, be kind to yourself. Writing might have to take a backseat for a while. Sometimes life just happens. Writing might be a priority, but it's not your only priority, and it will always be there even if you need to take some time off.