Feb 27, 2017

(Science Fiction) Classics: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Image from Wikipedia.org

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel about a soldier's, Billy Pilgrim's, experiences in the Second World War and how they affected him in later life. The novel is often called satirical.

Vonnegut also uses science fiction elements in the story (rather cliché ones, actually), and that's probably why this book ended up on my Science Fiction Classics reading list, but in my opinion this novel isn't science fiction. The idea is that the main character becomes unstuck in time, yielding an interesting structure that was probably considered revolutionary when the book was published, and he also gets abducted by aliens. So far, so science fiction-y, right? Well, no. For science fiction, the fantastic element needs to be an integral part of the story and it needs to be 'real,' as in 'it was all a dream' or 'it was all in his head' don't count. For me, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a soldier with PTSD slowly going insane and escaping his trauma into an imaginary world composed of things from his everyday life. PTSD patients never really escape their trauma, but keep getting dragged back in to experience it over and over again. That's the kind of 'time travel' happening here, I think. Others may disagree, but I felt the book makes this pretty clear: Billy reads bad science fiction stories, one of which is about a man and a woman getting abducted by aliens and placed in a zoo. That's exactly what he claims happened to him. And the woman? She's from a men's magazine Billy spotted in a sleazy bookstore. Why would Vonnegut put this in if he wasn't implying that the fantastical element isn't real?

I had a hard time getting into this book. Vonnegut's clunky and distant prose annoyed me, as well as the repetition of 'so it goes' every time Vonnegut talks about death. Yes, I get that he's making a point about how callous the characters and the narrator are being, but enough is enough. He uses repetition of other phrases, too, like 'faces like radium dials' for example, usually in a different context. This I felt was an interesting technique. I haven't read Vonnegut's other work so I don't know whether the prose style here was an intentional choice to keep the reader at arm's length, but if this is just his style I probably won't try any more of his books. He does do telling details well, which makes the characters come to life even though we never get to see much of their inner thoughts and feelings. The style is more that of an outside observer, just reporting the facts. 

About all those interesting facts Vonnegut uses: I found many of them off-putting. This is a personal preference thing, but Billy's sadistic, torture device obsessed soldier pal Weary and the stories of the atrocities the Nazis committed turned my stomach, as they were probably meant to, but they made it hard for me to finish the book. The book is anti-war, for sure. The Slaughterhouse Five of the title is the slaughterhouse where Billy and co. are assigned to stay in Dresden. Vonnegut is drawing from personal experience here as he was prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombings and only survived because he took shelter in the underground meat locker of the slaughterhouse. 

The aliens that allegedly kidnap Billy, the Tralfalmadorians, are used to make interesting philosophical  points. They have a different concept of time, as in they see all time at once. People aren't really dead, they're always alive somewhere in time, so death doesn't have the same meaning to them. They're also quite fatalistic: everything happens because it happens, period. There is no free will. You can't change the future. They also reveal to Billy that one of their test pilots destroys the universe in a stupid accident, but that's just how it goes. As they see all of time all the time, how do they deal? Well, they prefer to  concentrate on the positive moments and ignore the wars etc. That's pretty good advice for a traumatised soldier, isn't it? Billy likes it so much that he starts preaching it to anyone who'll listen.

I can't say I actually liked the book, but I do understand why it's considered a classic.

P.S. Being nitpicky here, but what's up with the unnecessary hyphen in the title? I even asked my husband who speaks fluent German if it's a German thing, but it isn't.  

Because this was on the Science Fiction Classics reading list, I guess I'll have to count it towards that, so Science Fiction Classics read 46/193.


Feb 23, 2017

Dinner with Dalí

Did you know Salvador Dalí published a cookbook in 1973? Like Dalí himself, it's gloriously weird and OTT, and, best of all, he did the illustrations himself! My copy is the Taschen English translation, which is beautiful, but I would like to get a copy of the French original, because it does feel like something is maybe getting lost in translation.  Just check out the prosaic translations of the index below: "the cannibalisms of autumn" is apparently eggs and seafood. Don't speak French? Go on, feed a few of these into Google translate. It's very entertaining. 

Here's the man himself. Wouldn't you love attend that dinner party?

As for the recipes, they're not the most practical sort, like this crayfish tower, but they are fun to read. 

And you gotta love the illustrations!

There are also some menus included in the book.

Yeah, I probably won't be trying out the frog pasties or the many ways of cooking calf's brains, but as a curiosity, this was absolutely worth getting. I got mine from Amazon, but different versions seems be available online. 

Feb 20, 2017

Writerly Progress Report

So, what's new on the writing front? Well, I was supposed to get a few English short stories done over the holidays, but spent them recuperating on the couch instead. I did find the energy to submit a few older pieces and sent a story to the Writers of the Future contest, gathered a bunch of rejections for a flash piece, and got an acceptance for a short story I submitted to an anthology called Mrs Rochester's Attic, yay! And I am feeling a bit better, so hopefully I can get the revisions I was planning to do over the holidays done in the next few weeks, maybe even finish the short story I've been wanting to write. 

Lying on the couch wasn't all bad: I did figure out how to fix the opening of a story that's been sitting in my virtual drawer for six months. The trouble is that I actually pretty much love the opening as it is, but it just doesn't fit the story (the tone is wrong and there's too much flash and humour and action considering what comes next), but now I have an idea on how to tone it down without losing the strong character voice that prompted me to write the story in the first place. 

For the last few weeks I've been busy with edits for the Finnish Gothic anthology piece. I really enjoyed working with the editors and I feel the story is much stronger now that I've finished. We'll see if there will be another round of edits, or maybe just some minor tweaks. Either way, it's been a great learning experience. I also got the edits for the Nova competition piece. There will apparently be an anthology at some point, but the edits don't need to be done for months so that's on the back burner for now. Last weekend I scrambled to finish a story for my Finnish critique group and managed to get it done the night before the deadline, so I'm pretty happy with that. 

I also wrote the article for the English edition of the Cosmos Pen magazine I talked about earlier and found out some of my drabbles got accepted for publication in the mag also. If you're going to Worldcon, they'll be handing out copies of the magazine there, so do check it out if you're interested. My article is a travel guide type thing called "Weird Finland: A Guide to Peculiar Places." (Working title, haven't got the edits back for that one yet.) I'm not sure if the magazine will be available electronically also, but I'll link to it if it is. 

That's pretty much it for now. Hopefully I'll get a few stories in English done soon. I haven't submitted anything to Critters in ages...

Feb 16, 2017

Writer Trick: Map of Character Reactions

Mind maps are useful tools for writers, and I've used them in various ways, mostly for character-building purposes, but I've never thought to use them to map out the emotional reactions between characters. Somebody mentioned the idea in a blog post, and I thought that it sounded very useful, especially for someone like me who has trouble with getting across genuine character emotion. (It usually takes me at least three drafts. I can get the plot down pretty easily, but then I need to build layers and layers of meat around the bones, interior monologue, character thoughts etc. I'm so jealous of those people who get it all down in the first draft.)

The idea behind a character reactions mind map is quite simple: just get a big piece of paper, write down all your major characters, and start drawing lines. Try to think not so much of plot but subtext. Why does Minnie hate Mo? What happened between them? Do they have secrets? To get the most out of your characters, you want to have plenty of lines connecting them to each other. If you find that somebody is left out of the web, maybe think about a few more connections to make her integral to the story, or consider whether you need her at all. (This is a great way to cut superfluous characters. Just shove two boring characters together and see if they make one interesting one.)

When you're drawing the lines, you might use a different color or line type to mark positive/negative reactions. For conflict, you need the characters to clash. So if somebody is looking like she's getting along with everyone, mess it up for her. Even the people on the same side should have some seeds for conflict between them, even if it's not major.

The best thing about a mind map is that it's easy to play around and try out ideas. Just draw a line between two characters you didn't think were connected. What if they are? How? If it feels silly, you only lost a few minutes, not hours of writing time.

I'm definitely going to try this technique. If you're familiar with it and know where to find a book on the subject, do tell us in the comments.

Feb 14, 2017

Happy Valentine's Day!

Here's a little piece I wrote for the Apex Valentine's day competition. It didn't make the cut, so I decided to stick it here instead. I hope you like it.

Locks of Love

The men always came with scissors, some dull and stubborn with rust, others oiled and wickedly sharp, and one memorable pair golden and dainty, shaped like a stork’s beak. If Acantha was feeling generous, she’d comb out her silky beard and let them take what they wished. Some wanted more. The polite, comely ones she sometimes took as lovers, but for those who would take their pleasure by force, there was the toadstone. Let them hop back to their women, hoping for a kiss to restore their humanity.
The boy had shears. The poor thing trembled so hard Acantha thought he’d faint.
“Come, boy. You’re letting the ghosts in.”
The boy yelped and swatted at the wraith playfully winding its bony fingers around his throat. With an indignant howl, the wraith dispersed into wisps of mist.
“Close the door. For goodness’ sake! I know what you seek.” Acantha separated a few tendrils and beckoned. The boy’s hands shook so that she had to steady them, and the shears left a ragged, ugly mark. “There, go. Good luck.”
The boy stammered his thanks and stumbled out, leaving the door wide open. Acantha closed the door and smoothed the shorn ends into her beard. It had no magical powers that she knew of, but somehow the men who came to her succeeded in wooing their ladies nonetheless.
The men would come with their scissors, and she would oblige them.
 Saved her hours of composing insipid love spells, at least.

Feb 11, 2017

Finland Second?

Ever since Trump did his "America first" speech, European countries have been doing spoof introduction videos to Trump, urging him to put them second. And here's what the Finns came up with:

(Here's the link if you can't see the video above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yP9Qt-bSz40)
You can see other examples at http://everysecondcounts.eu

Feb 9, 2017

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

Maylis de Kerangal is a French writer who has won many awards for her work, but only two of her novels have been translated into English: The Heart (Mend the Living) and The Birth of a Bridge. My mom brought me the Finnish translation of The Heart and said: "You have to read this!" That's usually a good sign so I dove right in and fell in love with the book from the first page. (In Finnish the name is translated as Bury the Dead, Patch up the Living, by the way. I tried to find more translations, but I think this is the only one of de Kerangal's books that's been translated into Finnish so far.)

The Heart tells the story of a heart transplant from the accident that leaves young surfer Simon brain-dead to the surgery where the heart is transplanted into another's chest. On the way de Kerangal dips into the minds of the grieving parents, the doctors and nurses, and the heart's recipient. The novel is a great example of how the much-maligned third person omniscient point of view is sometimes the best choice for a narrative. I can't imagine this book written in any other way; the voice of the author permeates the novel, ebbs and flows in breathless, rolling sentences while still revealing a deeply moving study of the characters and their emotions. This is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, and one of the saddest. I'd love to reread it in French, but because of the subject matter I feel like I need to give myself some time before I can do that.

I also loved the way de Kerangal uses free association in her descriptions, like in the journey of the heart to the hospital for the transplant. This yields many unique and beautiful passages that you want to read over and over again. I'm definitely going to try this technique for one of my own stories. (Yay, new writer tricks!)

I haven't read the English translation, but I highly recommend the book. I'm going to pick up one of her other books and try to read it in the original language and I'll definitely try the French edition at some point.

Here's a link to her Wikipedia page if you want to check out her other titles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maylis_de_Kerangal

Feb 6, 2017

Loot Crate: Origins

Finally got around to picking up January's Loot Crate from the post office. The theme is "origins," so I'm expecting lots of superhero stuff.

The T-shirt was a surprise: Super Mario!

This thing? Just weird. It's a teeny tiny tiki mug that's supposed to look like Shredder, but actually doesn't. 

There was also a model of Captain America's original shield, but I forgot to take a photo of that one, whoops...

The coolest item this month? This reprint of Action Comics # 1! (The first appearance of Superman, in case you're not a comic book geek. The original is worth a bundle, if you've got one lying around somewhere.)

And the Loot Pin, TMNT flavoured this month. I loved the original series as a kid, so this is pretty cool. 

Feb 2, 2017

Long Live the Ukulele!

File:The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.jpg
Image from Wikimedia commons

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain did a few shows in Finland, and I was lucky enough to attend the concert in Turku last week. I loved the show; it's impossible not to smile when somebody plays the ukulele, and when you add to that some wry British humour, well-chosen covers, and loads of genuine enthusiasm, you have a winner.

The songs performed ranged from pop to rock to classical, but I especially enjoyed the orchestra's version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The crowd went wild when one of the players pulled out a kantele (a traditional Finnish instrument used in folk music) and started playing. I also liked the medleys of different songs.

You can view videos of the orchestra's performances on youtube, but for the full experience you need to see them live. Definitely go if you get the chance. Looks like they've got a bunch of shows coming up in the UK and in Germany in the next six months. All the shows in Finland were pretty much sold out, so it's best to get your tickets well in advance if you want to go.