New Years Resolutions

I have a few of the usual, of course.  Do more research personally in my free time.  Ride my bike more and write more.  These aren’t really New Year specific resolutions, more like the promises and affirmations I make to myself all year round.  I haven’t tried to make a real ‘New Year’s Resolution’ since I was in primary school and it was a part of the culture in my peer group.

This year, I’ve done a lot more blogging than in the past, and with it has come a couple of blogging resolutions I hope I’ll be able to sustain.  The first and most important is to decide on a more useful and accessible way to list the books I’ve reviewed in the past.  I’ve seen it done with a fiction/non-fiction split, using library catalogue numbers (most commonly Dewey Decimal).  I’ve seen it done categorically with relation to the focus of the blog, with on-topic and off-topic lists.  I’m going to have to actually compile some of my topical lists and post them.  I’m going to have to decide on an organisational system that suits what I’m doing.

The second is in relation to the availability of public domain and creative commons images online.  I’ve been using the WordPress Zemanta widget that suggests images based on the content of the posts, but that results in a few things.  White surrounding the image automatically, and often image results that have little to do with my actual topics.  My resolution here is to recharge my own camera batteries more regularly and take pictures to accompany my blogs by my very own self (or search down free use images myself without relying on a widget).  I have also been a little shy of using images of book covers because like many small bloggers I’m a bit concerned about copyright, fair use, and the scary hammer of a DMCA takedown notice being arbitrarily brought down upon my head.  As part of my attempt to do a real job of visual content, I’m going to read up on fair use and hopefully start sharing more pictures of the books I’m reading hardcopy.

Finally I’m going to do the responsible thing and post pages on my reviewing policy (though I mainly read the books in my house, it’s good to disclose things) and comments policy (because I’ve had some weird experiences commenting on others’ blogs and now recognise the importance of clear comment guidelines in a world of spam)

I’m mainly posting this so that it’s out here, and if any of my small and lovely readership notice I’m slipping they can simply slap me on the wrist.  Please slap me on the wrist, or anywhere non-gender-specific that you like, if you see anything slipping on my blog.

A to Z Challenge Complete!

Success!  I proclaim it!  I have undertaken the A to Z Challenge 2010 and completed my reading and reviewing list of 26 authors of the alphabet.   It’s 8:30 or so AM on the final day, and I’m off to read a book chosen completely in freedom of alphabets and requirements.  I think it’s nearly time for a victory dance.  Or, at least, a victory photograph of the hardcopy books from my home that I read as part of the challenge.  Also the phone and laptop on which I read the public domain ebooks.  Please forgive the way that they slump on my couch, they’re worn out after the weeks we’ve had together.

‘The City of Dreaming Books’ by Walter Moers

Written by Optimus Yarnspinner in Zamonian, ‘translated’ to German and illustrated by Walter Moers, then translated into English by John Brownjohn.

Books, books, books, books.

This book was recommended to me by the lovely proprietors of Book Passion in Belconnen, and though I haven’t read it yet, I have been ogling it on my shelf and looking forward to getting stuck into it.  It is a bibliophile’s book.  It follows the story of Optimus Yarnspinner.  In a world where authorial godparents see to the literary education of children and there are species and cities renowned for producing great writers, Optimus’ godfather leaves him a manuscript without an author attribution.  Optimus heads to the City of Dreaming Books (antiquarian and collectible books who are neither alive nor dead in the eyes of booksellers and readers, simply resting) to seek out its author.

There’s a fun adventure story somewhere in there, but more importantly there’s books!  I loved the story but the books alone would have been enough to keep me entertained.  Though I did not recognise them all, every author in this fantasy world seems to be an anagram of all or part of a famous author’s name in reality; Doylan Cone for example.  I was quite distraught that the afternote by Moers implied that Yarnspinner had written far more about his own life and about some of the inhabitants of the City of Dreaming Books.  Even though it’s probably in keeping with the pretence of the sub-titling and the narrative persona, I can’t help but wish that I could take up the study of Zamonian and seek out for myself these further untranslated volumes.

I’m going to keep a keen eye out for Moers’ other work, and I imagine that sometime in the next few weeks I will be returning to re-read this.  You can’t borrow it, it’s mine.  Go buy your own.  If you love books half as much as I do, you’ll love reading this book.  If you love inked drawings, you may have to just browse through the pages for those alone.

There’s a great review at Adventures in Reading, another at The Book Pirate, and there’s a lot of love all around in general.  Who wouldn’t love a book about books?

‘Flashman and the Great Game’ by George MacDonald Fraser

What can I say, really, but that this if Flashman.  If you’ve read a Flashman novel before then you probably know the gist of the impression one gets from him.  If you haven’t, it’s rather hard to explain.  Flashy is himself as always; stubborn, racist, cowardly, libellous and lascivious.  If you’ve never encountered him before, he is based on the foil character and bully from Tom Brown’s School Days.  If you haven’t read Tom Brown, think along the lines of Draco Malfoy or a strange synthesis between Arnold Rimmer and Ace; promiscuous and a serial evader of duty and responsibility.  He learns language skills in the beds of the women he seduces while in military service, and survives to become a hero by consistently running away and trying to avoid exposure as a deserter or coward.

Flashman’s arrogance and ego once again land him in peril, this time getting caught up in the Indian Mutiny.  He sees a lot more horror firsthand, including the worst behaviour of both sides, and bounces around in calamitously poor luck so that we end up with perspectives on myriad events and circumstances.  The food and supplies for both sides, the political motivations, silliness and apathy… in short the human condition when you’ve got a country full of angry people who don’t feel safe in their beds.

What was most interesting was the insights into the sense of ethics and decency that Flashman develops.  It’s not what anyone of his time would call ethics, but he does show empathy for others, horror at the inhumanity of their treatment, and a naivety and obliviousness regarding beautiful women.  As the story is told from Flashman’s first-person perspective, I’d almost think him guilty of trying to show himself in a softer light.  Yet he has always been unashamedly himself, has always openly admitted to all his vices, which is half the appeal of the series.

Flashman in the Great Game is something I’m going to come back to.  I haven’t read much about this period in Indian history, and I want to get the facts so that I can enjoy the liberties taken with them better.  I loved Flashman as I always do, of course, and recommend this series to anyone and everyone (except for my mum)

Felice’s Log has a much better review than mine.  There’s a very positive review here at We Are Amused.  There was a pretty readable article at the Wall Street Journal after Fraser’s death.

‘Dancing on the Grave’ by Nigel Barley

This is probably a book that would shock my mother, but delight my great-aunt.  Dancing on the Grave is a collection of recollections of Nigel Barley (anthropologist) from his personal experiences and studies.  He wins bonus points for citing some of the books I used in my own thesis, and then loses some for doing that weird meandering thing with time and place that I have noted when reading Bill Bass’s memoirs and some other American anthropological non-fiction.  Maybe there’s a textbook or lecturer out there, training people in the Arch and Anth faculties to ignore linearity and explanation in favour of segueing between case studies? If so, they must have stopped by London and had a chat with Barley at some point.

Anyway, that meandering usually annoys me but in this collection of titbits and factoids about local differences in death culture rituals it worked quite well.  I happily grinned and laughed and nodded at the descriptions of funeral practices, and had a great time of it.  Then I read some of the jokes out aloud, and faced the horrified and disgusted faces of my family.  It appears that puns along the lines of

Putting the hearse before Descartes

aren’t as hilarious to people who don’t handle the dead for a living.  What I loved most were the solid bibliography, the presence of an index, and the way that Barley confesses to his perspective bias and emphasises it by mentioning several times the contrasts in attitudes between anthropologists from different cultural backgrounds and the strangeness of our own behaviour and rituals.  If you’re interested in seeing death as it is, with all the positives and negatives and social implications, (or if you have an interest in mortuary studies) you should read this book.  The squeamish may want to forgoe meals beforehand, though; there are bones and some mentions of cannibalism and gore.

Oh goodness me, in a review at metapsychology, it is mentioned that this book was renamed for American release.  I suppose that the title was too silly perhaps, or maybe just not solemn enough.  There aren’t any book blogger reviews from what I could find, though I’ll modify search terms and edit this post if I find any in the future.

‘The Key’ by Junichiro Tanizaki

This book was torrid and wanton, but also very matter-of-fact and straightforward.  Translated by Howard Hibbett after the author’s death, The Key is striking for its openness and the sexual honesty and subterfuge of the characters.  Set in the form of diary entries of a poorly matched husband and wife who suspect but are not sure that they are reading each others entries clandestinely, it touches on a lot of things that are very human and in contradiction to the romantic myth of love and marriage that exists.  The characters of The Key love and hate simultaneously with strong passion.  They begin with lies and subterfuge, and descend into a more honest and self-aware recognition of their own sexual desires and appetites.

The sex and sexuality is not a side-element, but is the whole story.  On my first read-through I was too used to everyday ‘edgy’ romance novels to be much more than horrified at some of the content, but re-reading it this year I could see a lot of contemplation of life, death and identity.  The biological frailty of the characters and their desire to escape their frailty and social relationships through orgasm is quite striking.  For a novella thinner than my pinky finger, it takes a lot of energy to get through.  I suspect I won’t have thought all my thoughts about it until I’ve re-read it a few more times and done some reading about Tanizaki himself.

You can find some other reviews at The Examiner and at Bookie Mee.

‘People Might Hear You’ by Robin Klein

I haven’t read this book ever before, but it was read aloud to me when I was in primary school.  I was fortunate that my teachers kept up a daily book-reading session and also that they chose books very well for my class.  They seemed to hit the right content for most of us.  We had the John Marsden Tomorrow When the War Began series of course, but far more striking than having characters actually being at war was the behaviour of the characters in People Might Hear You.

Frances has lived with her Aunt Loris in rental housing for some time now, and Aunt Loris is finally marrying.  Frances is used to moving, and is curious about her new family and permanent home, but there is something a little off about it all.  The doors lock the women inside the house, the girls have never been sent to school, and there’s a cellar in the house stocked against the imminent threat of war.  People Might Hear You focuses on the fear, seclusion and misinformation that are used to propagandise cult members.  The desire to please, love and fit in is exploited, and access to people from outside the group is discouraged.

It wasn’t a happy book, when I first lay back in the cool room and closed my eyes to listen.  I resonated very deeply with Frances, and her isolation, indignation and fear were so vivid I felt them as my own for months.  Re-reading it now, there’s some distance from the intensity of my first experience of the book.  I can see now a lot of the lies that humans, particularly adults, tell themselves that allow them to become caught in cults, and that changes the way I’ve perceived the book.  Frances’ age and the perspective of youth make her able to see what others can’t.

Having experienced the book both as a child and an adult I have to say that though it’s powerful at any age, I got a lot more out of it as a child.  Both because I was right there in Frances’ shoes, and because it helped me to understand my own parents and other adults in my life.  I recommend it to everyone, but I feel a little sad that people coming to it as adults may miss out on some of the immediacy and usefulness of the story.  One big interesting note is that as a child, I thought the book had a very abrupt and unsatisfying ending.  As an adult, I see a hope and opportunity I couldn’t see then.  I wonder if this has to do simply with having more legal independence, or from knowing more about the world.  I still do wish to this day, that I knew what happened next.

Strangely enough, though Klein’s a well known Australian author and People Might Hear You pings on a lot of online bookselling websites, there’s very few reviews.  I’m not linking to any, because the only one that was more than a summary of the book itself ignored spelling and punctuation, and spoiled the ending.  You can always visit her author page at Penguin Books however.  I’ve read most of Klein’s books, and loved them all, so I highly recommend her as a writer.