Wednesday, 30 December 2009

auf Wiedersehen: Review

auf Wiedersehen
By Christa Holder Ocker
Published by Plain View Press
Published in 2009
ISBN: 978-1-935514-27-5

This book was sent to me by a publicist for review. I was not paid for this review.

Lately, I've been having something of a World War II binge. I watched Band of Brothers from start to finish while concurrently being enthralled by the National Geographic documentary Apocalypse: World War Two. Then auf Wiedersehen landed on my doorstep. It was, as it turns out, the perfect complement to my self education in the horror of previous generations. Not only is it a memoir, it is a memoir of a young German girl and the impact that the war had on her and her family, a vice we don't often hear from. The story picks up in the final scenes of World War Two - the Russians are closing in from the East, the Americans and the British approaching from the West. Hitler's Germany is disintegrating and as a result, her people are suffering. 

Some 50 million people died as a result of this war: soldiers blown up in trenches; civilians bombed in their homes; Jews, Gyspies and homosexuals persecuted and tortured for not fitting the ideals of a madman, and more. It's just too colossal a figure to give any serious emotional or intellectual consideration to. The horror is too much, the body count too high. No words can stretch far enough to do it justice. Which is where this book excels: it doesn't try to. It quietly tells the story of one girl and that's all. Occasionally there are facts about recognizable events from the war in the narrative: the bombing of Dresden, the liberation of the Treblinka concentration camp, the bombing of Hiroshima, but overall the narrative focuses firmly on the domestic and the interior. Something we can all relate to and process.

Belgian refugees ca. 1940, OWI photo from NA
Image credit: Here

Forced from their comfortable home, Christa and her family are made refugees. They are homeless and at the mercy of those around them. Their mother's Prussian pride takes a beating, their stomachs are left empty and they endure the heartbreak of having to constantly say auf Wiedersehen to those they hold dear. Yet, through it all, their spirit triumphs - particularly Christa's. Her effervescent personality and headlong enthusiasm for life beams out from the pages as she falls in 'love' with one boy after the next, puts on puppet shows with new-found friends and prays fervently to God to get her out of attending school. 

This book is a quick, yet satisfying read. I read it all on the evening that I received it and enjoyed every last page. If there were anything to criticize about this book, however, it would have to be its length. I got to the final pages and wanted to know more - it seemed that there could be so much more said and explored. What happened next? How did they cope with the next set of new circumstances? At 142 pages, there was certainly room for more story. Having said that, the 142 pages that we do get are very good. Holder Ocker writes beautifully and the character of her younger self is engaging and loveable. I'd recommend this book to anyone who is interested in WWII, loves memoirs or simply enjoys a good, well-written yarn from teenaged readers through to adults. You won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A non-literary post

It's a funny thing that the end of the year does to us all. All of a sudden there is this mad impulse to try and condense it, make a 'best of' list out of it, make some sense of another year that has, by all accounts, rocketed by while we were standing agog wondering how time got to moving by so fast.

So here we are again: December 2009, not only the end of the year but the end of another decade - the so-called "Noughties". Lord knows what we're supposed to call the next one, but I guess we have time to figure that out. This decade was a particularly significant one for me as it saw me moving from being a teenager to an adult. Ten years ago I had just finished my sixth form year at high school in New Zealand, I wanted to be a doctor and I had a huge crush on some guy in my Chemistry class. Ten years later, I've just gotten married (not to the guy in my Chemistry class!), moved countries and embarked on the career I've come to realise is my true passion: books and everything to do with them. It's a cliche, I know, but it really is amazing how much difference 10 years can make but also how quickly it passes us by.

In any case, what I really wanted to say was I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year. Look forward to seeing you back here in 2010!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Musical Chairs: Review

Musical Chairs
By Jen Knox
Published by All Things That Matter Press
Published in 2009
ISBN: 978-098425942-7

This book was sent to me by the author for review. I was not paid for this review.

Musical Chairs is an honest look at the struggle of a young girl to find her place in the world whilst battling against mental illness and addiction. Jen opens up her past and her world for the reader to see and although what we might see is not always pretty, it is definitely compelling. The narrative floats between novel and memoir, weaving the thread of fact and life into a wonderfully readable story.

The story starts when Jen is 15 years old, but as we come to understand the story has actually started a long time before she was even born as the character of Glory, her Great-Grandmother is revealed through stories her grandmother tells her as she obsessively looks for answers that no-one seems to be able to provide. As soon as she runs away from home, it seems that Jen is always running - but from what doesn't become clear to her for many years. She isn't silly and knows what she needs to do to succeed in life, but frustratingly it's life that seems to keep throwing stumbling blocks in her path. Many times when I was reading this I found myself thinking that this could so easily have happened to many people. The toxic combination of circumstance, lack of institutional knowledge about more pervasive minor mental illnesses and some ill-advised choices of a young woman unsure of herself and in the company of those who would seek to exploit her lead to some heart-breaking situations.

What I really liked about this book was the way the story was told. It is simply put onto the pages for the reader to absorb, enjoy and take from it what they will. When reading a story like this, all too often the reader finds themselves being beaten over the head by some kind of message - listen up, reader! It's terribly important that you get this key point from this book! - but even though there is a thought-provoking conclusion to this story it's not expounded upon ad nauseam.

It is impossible for the reader to not get caught up in this story. It's is well-written, absorbing and best of all, real. Not just in the "this actually happened" way but real in the way that you could be sitting across the kitchen table from Jen, sipping a cup of tea whilst she tells you about her life. A great read.

Image credit: All things that matter press

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Christmas Wishlists

Image credit: Here

Having looked at Books on the Nightstand's awesome Christmas gift list last night I decided I would post my top five wishlist books and ask you all to do the same. It's just a bit of fun and in no way designed to be taken as a hint for any friends or family who may be reading this!

5. The forest of hands and teeth by Carrie Ryan
4. The possibility of everything by Hope Edelman
3. The sweetness at the bottom of the pie by Alan Bradley
2. The year of the flood: A novel by Margaret Atwood
1. White is for witching by Helen Oyeyemi

How about you guys? Which books are the top of your wishlist? Have you read any of the ones I want?

Look forward to hearing from you!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Best Blog Awards

This cool award button is from: Tales from our crib

So December has hit like a freight train and I've been completely snowed under by a sudden onslaught of things to do! As if Christmas wasn't enough I have also recently taken on an editing project which I'm really excited about but it's taking up a lot of time and mental energy. Hence the severe lack of posting lately. But! I was revitalised, honoured and oh so chuffed when I saw that Caroline from Caroline By Line had awarded me a Best Blog award! Talk about a shot of encouragement right when you needed it! The timing couldn't have been better and has gotten me back on the laptop tapping away. 

So, to pass on the love that Caroline has shared with me, I want to post my Best Blog Awards. 

The recipients are:
1. Greg at The New Dork Review of Books
2. Brizmus at Brizmus Blogs Books
3. Amanda at The Zen Leaf
4. Alessandra at Out of Blue
5. Helen at Helen Loves Books

Winners, please select five further winners and so the chain of love can continue!!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Giveaway Winner

Image credit: Here
And the winner is.... *drumroll*


Congratulations! You're my first ever prize winner.

I have sent you an email, Alessandra - you have 48 hours to get back to me with your postal address.

Note: I used the awesome Contest Winner Picker to find my winner. Check it out!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Sign for Drowning: Review

The Sign for Drowning
By Rachel Stolzman
Published by Trumpeter Books
Published 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59030-720-5

This book was sent to me as a review copy by the author who also sent me a signed copy to use as a giveaway (which is only open until midnight Monday 30th November so get your entries in now, people!!)

This book is a visceral and very real look at the life of a woman whose life has been defined by the loss of her baby sister, Megan, through accidental drowning when she was 8 years old. Anna has, since that day, been lost in a world of uncertainly and grief, ever searching for someone or something to anchor her in the world. After meeting Adrea, a deaf child who was abandoned by her teenaged parents, in her centre for deaf children, Anna's life seems to take on a new meaning but grief still looms large, refusing to leave her family in peace.

I really enjoyed this novel - the narrative is beautifully written, reflecting Stolzman's poetic background, but without being overly lyrical - I'm a fan of a well-written sentence or a beautiful image but I hate being beaten over the head with a metaphor. It's a fine line and one that Sign balances brilliantly. For example, one of my favourite sentences was this stunner:

"She saw herself, a baby mermaid, hair streaming back, a last oxygen bubble escaping from her mouth. There were monsoon rains with every turn of her neck. Earthquakes broke fault lines with each kick of her legs. Every thrashing of her arms brought forest fires somewhere. Opening her mouth caused volcanoes to erupt. 

In this way, she left us."  (Page 62)

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was that Anna's character was so well-realised. The link between her sister's drowning and her fascination with sign language - a key aspect of her character -  is not immediately obvious and I wondered for the first few chapters how it was all going to tie in together but once revealed it's ingenious. First person confessional voice of Anna allows the reader to track along with her thoughts as she copes with grief and faces the effects it has had on her life, particularly her relationship with her mother.

Mother-daughter relationships lay at the heart of this novel as it is this relationship, both as the daughter and later the adoptive mother, that define Anna. Stolzman investigates this most emotionally fraught relationship with both delicacy and a clear eye, enabling the reader to see both Anna and her own mother as both mothers and a flawed human beings - something not easily achieved as too often portrayals of mothers become one dimensional or fall into the perfect mother/evil mother dichotomy.

The only regret I had about this book was that it wasn't longer - I felt that there were places in the novel that could have been lingered over a bit more, even if only for the reader to absorb what had happened but it felt occasionally as if we were being hustled along. This doesn't really detract from the novel - just at times I wish I'd had a bit more space and time within it to really enjoy what was happening.

Overall, I loved this novel. It is beautifully written and a thoroughly enjoyable first novel. It takes on some very big issues and handles them with finesse and intelligence. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this is one I would highly recommend that you read. It's one that will stay with me for a long time.

Image credit: Here

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Where do you draw the line?

Earlier this year I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It was recommended to me by a good friend who had just finished reading it and loved it and sure enough, I also really enjoyed it. Hmm. Maybe "enjoyed" is the wrong word. It's hard to 'enjoy' the unblinking account of how two society drop-outs come to brutally murder a decent and community minded family of four... Let's just say I was gripped by it. I could not put it down nor could I read anything else until I knew how it all ended.

What made it such a compelling read? Partially, of course, Capote's writing keeps the reader involved but I think the main driving force behind this book is the fact that it is real. This happened - the facts are all real (although there is some controversy about the accuracy of Capote's reporting on some details). Capote read about these killings in the paper and immediately packed up his suitcase and went out to Holcomb, West Kansas to cover this story. This Guardian Books article looks at this case which happened fifty years ago this month - it's a cracking read, so I recommend you check it out.

Truman Capote
Image credit: Here

The article got me thinking though. It mentions that although some townspeople were happy with the book and its epic success (millions of copies sold and four movies made), there were plenty that were not. As a result of the popularity of the book and it's movie spinoffs, there has been and will undoubtedly continue to be a steady stream of people from all over the world coming through to see the place where it all happened. Bobby (now Bob) Rupp, the then-sixteen year old sweetheart of Nancy Clutter, now 66 year old father of four, grandfather of eight, stated his displeasure with the books and movies, which incidentally he has never read nor watched and never will, as he felt that this attention has made people only focus on the fact of the Clutters' bloody demise rather than on what they achieved as people during their lives.

This and the ethically thorny issue of profiting from re-telling someone else's misery are commonly raised when literature deals with tragedy and disaster. Even though I haven't even started writing it yet, I have come across this in my thesis about post 9/11 literature. Some people have reacted angrily to those who wish to portray the events of that day through any media - be it literature, in films, through photography... And this is understandable. For those suffering the loss of someone, their grief is a very personal experience and any intrusion into the sacred space of the memory of their loved one be it direct or indirect is intolerable. However, for events such as 9/11, there is another grief at work: public grief. This grief is predicated on not personal loss but societal loss, the collective trauma of seeing, time and time again, from various angles the planes flying into the towers and their subsequent collapse, knowing we were watching people lose their lives. There's also the grief for the loss of a sense of security and loss of stability.

Image credit: photographer unknown

To work through a collective trauma it seems that representations of the event are necessary, but that doesn't mean that those who feel intruded upon are likely to be any more understanding. It seems to me to be a necessary evil, that these events must be memorialised and entrenched into our history through the written word and film. Because, as painful as it is that these things happened and though we may wish we could, we cannot and should not forget them.

I have to wonder about In Cold Blood, though. Was it necessary to have this gruesome murder written so definitively into America's history?

What are your thoughts on this? What do you think of representations of human tragedy and disaster? Historically and socially necessary or ethically and morally questionable?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Saturday by Ian McEwan: Review

Image credit: Here

When I was searching for novels that fell into the "Post 9/11 Literature" category I was really excited to see that Saturday was considered to be one. Although I had at that stage only ever read one other of McEwan's novels, I knew that I would enjoy anything he had written. I was right.

Saturday is set in the course of a single day but this fact is easy to forget as this novel moves along at such a pace and so much happens that only once you've finished and are sitting back, reflecting that you think crikey - that was all just one day! The novel follows Henry Perowne, a well-known neurosurgeon living a life of affluence and contentment in Central London on a day that is anything but normal. A cascading series of events happen that culminate in a heart stopping climax that has the reader in the grip of a powerful suspense and intrigue. McEwan has painted these micro level events on the background of 2003, post 9/11 pre-Iraq London in what appears to me to be a reflection of the macro scale political happenings at the interpersonal level.

I'm loathed to give any further details away about the plot as part of the beauty of this novel is that these details surprise, delight and horrify. Knowing that they are coming won't do a potential reader any good. I read (luckily, after the fact) a review that was basically a plot summary that gave everything away which I thought was a horrible shame. I'm glad that I hadn't seen this before I read it.

This novel won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for McEwan in 2006, a highly prestigious award based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I'm not surprised, it really is a masterpiece and a very thoughtful and clear-headed view of the world, post 9/11, unlike some other novels I have read which seem to grab desperately at the straws of patriotism and "us vs them" - all understandable reactions but not particularly helpful literary contributions.

I'd highly recommend this novel - especially to those who enjoy a good read that has intelligent content, a gripping story-line and characters with such depth that you feel like you actually know them.

Have you read this or any of McEwan's other books? Which have you enjoyed the most?

[Image of Ian McEwan credit: Here]

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

International Giveaway: Autographed copy of Sign for Drowning

This is my very first giveaway so I'm pretty excited - and I'm even more excited that the book is autographed by the author! 

Ok! So without further ado, here are the details of the giveaway:

Title: The sign for drowning
Author: Rachel Stolzman
Published by: Trumpeter Books, Boston
Year published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59030-720-5

The blurb on the back says:
"Anna has grown up haunted by her younger sister's death. In the life she constructs as a barrier against the emotional wreckage of her family tragedy, Anna settles comfortably into a career as a teacher of deaf children. But a challenge arrives - in the form of a young girl. Adrea's disarming vulnerability and obvious need for love offer Anna the possibility of reconnecting with the world around her - if she has the courage to open her heart."

About the author:
Rachel is a New York based writer. She has received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College - initially she planned to focus on poetry in her MFA but given that she was already an accomplished and published poet, she decided to work on her fiction writing skills. This is Rachel's first novel. For further information, please see Rachel's website.

Terms and conditions of the competition:

1) To enter, please comment on this post and tell me something about Rachel that you read on her website that I haven't already mentioned here.
2) For an additional entry, become a follower of my blog and mention this in your post (if you're already a follower please notify me of this also).
3) For another additional entry, comment on another of my posts and let me know.
4) For an additional 5 entries, put a link to my giveaway on your blog and tell me about it.
5) This giveaway is open internationally.
6) I also have a review copy of this book so your copy will be unread.
7) Closing date for entries will be 30th November 2009 at midnight Taiwan time.
8) I will announce the winner on or before 7th December 2009.
9) I your email address is not included on your profile, please email it to me so I can contact you if you win.

All images from Rachel Stolzman's website.

For my review of this book, please see here.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Beeb banned Blyton??!

Enid Blyton
Image credit: Here

As a pint-sized bookworm I read whatever I could get my hands on but majority of what I cut my literary teeth on as a nipper were the many and varied works of the one and only Enid Blyton. I fantasized about being in the Secret Seven, I wished I went to school at a boarding school and I have a vivid idea of what Toffee Shocks, Pop Biscuits and Google Buns taste like. I absolutely worshipped Enid Blyton. 

So when I read this article on I was agog. The BBC banned Enid Blyton?! Apparently it was because her books didn't "have enough literary value". Literary value? Seven year olds were reading this, not uni students! Her books were ripping good reads and gave many a child an outlet for their "let's get away from the parents and roam the moors" daydreams (or was that just me?) At least, according to the article, some of her work was eventually featured on the BBC - a mere 5 years before her death. It's a little too late but it's something, I guess. 

I suspect that if I were to revisit some of these childhood faves now they will have lost some of their magic (blast being an adult!) and apparently dear old Enid wasn't exactly the nicest person alive, but all the same. These books have shaped not only my childhood but the childhoods of millions of children all over the world.

Did you read Enid Blyton? If so, what was your favourite book/ series from her? Vote in the poll!

I'm throwing my hat in for Malory Towers. 

Image credit: Enid Blyton Society

Saturday, 14 November 2009

'Kathmeista Weekly' Top Ten

Publisher's Weekly released their Top 100 list this month and as a result have created quite a stir due to a complete and total lack of women writers in their Top 10 list. This despite Hilary Mantel winning the Booker for Wolf Hall, A.S. Byatt being nominated for the same award and literary giant Margaret Atwood releasing a new novel in September. They claim a lack of bias, gender or otherwise. I raise my eyebrows in a skeptical manner and say "Oh really."

After listening to Books on the Nightstand last night I decided that it would only be right and fair, given my skepticism, to have good look at my shelves and see what, if any, bias lurked there. Actually, its more to measure the extent of the bias as I know right off the bat that I have a strong preference for women writers. Just how strong was what I wanted to know.

As it happens, my bookshelves comprise (currently) 125 books - not a huge number but then I live in a not-huge apartment in Taiwan, so bear with me. Of those books, 39% were written by men, 60% were written by women and 1% were written by women under male pseudonyms. A strongly biased sample, yes - because frankly, I don't think it's possible to avoid bias in literature. It all comes down to taste after all and if mainly men are picking the lists, then I'm not surprised if male authors are winning the top spots. If it were up to me, I'd end up picking an almost all-female cast. Perhaps the gender balance of the judging panel should be re-examined.

In any case - it's just a list after all. It's a matter of opinion. My Top Ten is below.... what are your top ten books on your shelves?

'Kathmeista Weekly' Top Ten from my shelf (not just 2009):

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
4. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
6. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
7. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
8. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
9. Look at me by Anita Brookner
10. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

From Darkness to Light: Review

Image credit: Here

From Darkness to Light: My journey back from a brain filled with blood
By Lynn Christopher Roby
Published by Outskirts Press, Inc.
Published on July 17th 2009

I was sent my copy of From Darkness to Light as a review copy after responding to a press release about this book. The blurb promised a memoir about author Lynn's struggle back to a normal way of life after suffering an aneurysm but as I discovered upon reading it, what you get is a whole lot more than this.

From start to finish, this story takes up 118 pages but this is by no means a lightweight read. Lynn takes us through the journey of her life from tough and abusive beginnings to alcoholism and recovery through to her aneurysm her recovery from that. In fact, the majority of the book focuses on Lynn's recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction which is very interesting and gives the reader an insight into the 12 steps and how they later also aided her recovery from a serious brain injury.

Although God is mentioned a lot throughout this book, this is not an evangelical nor a Christian book per se. Lynn's relationship with her Creator is a personal one and an integral part of her journey but at no time does this book turn into a plug for any particular religion. In fact, Lynn doesn't try to define her God  - she practices and teaches Kripalu Yoga and is a Reiki Master in addition to being an addictions counsellor. If there is one thing that Lynn is not, it's living within the confines of a box or externally set boundaries.

This book came to me at an interesting time. I have been finding of late that books about yoga and meditation keep coming across my path. I took this book to be the final hint and finally cracked out my Yoga DVD that I've been promising to try "one day" and have found that even after just a couple of days I can feel some benefits of practicing yoga. Reading this book has certainly inspired me and touched me in a number of ways (not just the yoga) and I think it will touch anyone who reads it. You don't have to have suffered brain trauma or struggled with an addiction. You just merely need to have struggled in some way in your life. Reading this book will uplift and reassure you that, with the right attitude and people around you, you can overcome anything. Lynn writes honestly and openly in such an engaging way that it feels like she's right there telling you this story over a cup of tea.

Definitely keep a look out for this book. It's impossible to read it and not be moved in some way.

Note: Yoga image credit: Here

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Coming soon - my very first giveaway!

I am very exited to announce that I will soon be holding my very first giveaway. Rachel Stolzman is mailing me a signed copy of her first novel The Sign for Drowning. More details will follow once I have it in my possession. Watch this space!
Image credit: Here

Monday, 9 November 2009

Greer takes on Proust. Greer wins.

Germaine Greer at Humber Mouth Festival 2006
Image credit: Here

Germaine's never been one to hold back. If she's got an opinion, she'll let you know it and frankly, although I don't always agree with what she's saying, I think it's a damn good thing that we have someone like her around. It takes a lot of grit to come out and say what you're really thinking, particularly if it's not the kind of thing that's 'supposed' to be said out loud and kudos to her for doing it.

This article is yet another example of Greer's refreshing (and occasionally scathing) honesty. This woman is a fully fledged card-carrying member of the literati - a PhD from Cambridge and Professor Emeritus in Literature and Comparative Studies of University of Warwick, one of the most influential feminist theorists in the 20th century - and yet here she is, yet again, saying what no other literary person would dare to say publicly: If you haven't read Proust, don't bother. It's a waste of your time. She herself has, of course, made the epic journey through all five volumes and goes on to give a critical commentary of the many and varied translations but basically, the first paragraph said it all for me. There are, according to Greer, better things to do with your time than hauling yourself through this book - such as visiting a demented relative or walking the dog.

Thank you, Germaine, for alleviating some of my "I really should have read that" literature anxiety. I knew I'd never read this but now I don't feel bad about it. Not even a little bit.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

I'm sorry Mr. Roth, but I have to disagree

Philip Roth. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis

I saw this article about 10 days ago but didn't have the chance to properly comment on it until now for one reason and another. I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it though because I disagree so very strongly with it.

It's not often that I find myself in disagreement with great authors and people I hold in very high esteem but I guess there's always an exception. Basically, Philip Roth, the American writer who has written around 30 novels and been awarded numerous literary awards has said that he thinks that within 25 years the novel will have become a fringe cult, something only enjoyed by a select few. And that's an optimistic time frame, he thinks, due to the mass onslaught of media these days. With options like the movies, the internet, iPods and suchlike who'd want to pick up a humble book?

Well, me, for one. But I very much doubt that I will be the only one. The one thing that convinces me most strongly about this is what I see every single time I walk into a book store here in Taiwan. Taiwan is arguably one of the most technology-saturated nations on this planet - more than half of the population at any given time seems to be "plugged in" in one way or another and yet what do I see when I walk into the bookstores? Hoards of people with their nose buried in a book. Never before in my life have I had to pick my way along the aisles of a bookstore so carefully - folks here think nothing of finding themselves a wee corner and tucking into whichever book they happen to have picked up - the place is strewn with reading bodies! Moreover, when I catch the train into Taipei, half of the carriage is reading something, more often than not a novel.

Image credit: Here

How, then, can this claim that the novel is going extinct be true? It has survived the advent of the radio, the TV and the internet. In actual fact, the internet has probably done more to promote and facilitate the activity of reading through the invention of blogs and websites such as Bookcrossing. Book blogs abound out there, all of them written by avid readers who would choke on the very idea that books and reading could ever be pushed aside by technology. In fact, for a laugh I googled "book blogs" and "technology blogs" and found that the book blogs outweighed their technological cousins nearly 2:1. It's not a scientific study, but it's an interesting indication.

I guess the thing I found the worst about this claim was that Philip Roth is one of us - one of the bookworm club - and here he was, seemingly attacking the thing we all love the most. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having one of the post-publication panics he talks about in the article. Who knows? One thing is for sure though - I look forward to being around 25 years from now and seeing the printed word still going strong.

What do you think? Do you agree with Roth or do you think the novel will prevail? Add a comment or vote in the poll!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The most awesome wedding invites. Ever.

As anyone who knows me will know, I am a complete nut for not only books but stationery, pens and all things paper-based. I was that kid who couldn't wait for summer to be over so I could buy new exercise books and colour-coordinate my folders. My favourite thing about planning my wedding was making the invitations. And I thought my invites were pretty darn cool.... until I saw these on Jessica Claire's website/blog:

If you'd like to see the genius behind these invites, have a look at her website.

I take my hat off. In fact, they're so beautiful I almost want to cry.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

My book review policy

Thanks to Bookopolis for the outline of this policy

1st November 2009:
I am currently open to review requests.

What to expect: I love reading books and writing book reviews. I understand that a book is very personal to its creator but I do reserve the right to post an honest review. I will never be nasty, however and I can usually find something good to say about any book.

Genres I prefer: Contemporary fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Mysteries and Psychological Thrillers, Non-fiction, Memoir and Biographies

Genres I prefer not to review: Christian fiction, science fiction, romance, or erotica
(although I have made exceptions before and may do so again)

Acceptable book submission types: I typically don’t accept self-published books BUT in certain circumstances I will consider reviewing them.

I prefer not to review e-books - my eyes take a bad enough beating from the amount of reading I do as it is!

Review timeframe: Typically a review will take me 2-4 weeks upon receipt of the book, however if you require a more specific deadline, please let me know.

Cross-posting: If there is anywhere else you’d like my review posted please let me know in advance.

Miscellaneous: Your ARCs are safe with me – I do not believe in selling them!

For any other questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me: kathmeista AT gmail DOT com

Homeless like me by Donald Parker: Review

Homeless Like Me is a novel/e-book published by Sword of the Spirit Publications, a small Christian publishing house set up by the author and a few others interested in spreading the word of God. I was approached by Donald through Book Blogs and invited to review one of his books.

Homeless Like Me has taken inspiration from the international bestseller Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin, a white man who posed as an African American for six weeks travelling through the more racially segregated areas of America in the late 1950's.

Although Homeless has taken its cue from Black Like Me, it has gone off on a very different pathway. Brian, the protagonist, is a guy interested in making a quick fortune by writing a book about what it is like to be homeless. As part of his research he visits the local homeless shelter posing as one of those down on their luck but things get hairy when he is busted by Zeke, a big bear-like man who doesn't take kindly to Brian's covert mission. However, they soon find that each has something that the other needs and an uneasy friendship is formed and their journey takes them to some very unexpected places, both physically and metaphysically.

This book contains a lot of different strong themes: homelessness, homosexuality, Christianity and the global economic crisis - which makes the 200 odd pages seem very crowded and a little confused in places. In the first half of the book, I felt that the narrative relied too heavily on character dialogue, mainly between Brian and Zeke, but the flow improved greatly in the second half.

As readers, we join Brian and Zeke, two non-believers as they struggle with their skepticism about God and religion in general. The spiritual struggle that they go through, Brian's in particular, was very effective and realistically mirrors a lot of people's internal conflict about God. With the help of Brian's love interest Angel and the perceptive Soaring Eagle, Brian and Zeke eventually resolve their own struggles and take on the struggles of others.

Being not of the Christian faith myself, I have to admit that at times I found this a highly challenging read. The evangelical religious content of this book is very clear and holds no punches - something not often found on the bookshelves of your local bookstore.

The mission of Sword of the Spirit publications is, according to their website:
to distribute uplifting, inspirational, exhortational and
challenging literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that will help
non-believers understand and embrace Jesus and solidify the faith of
the believers and aid them in the quest to live a Godly lifestyle.
I think this book meets that mission with (spiritual) guns blazing through this interesting and compelling story.

Eleven by David Llewellyn: Review

By David Llewellyn
Published by Seren
Published in 2006

It's another day at work. Uninspired and wondering for the 67th time this week why on earth you are still in this job, you stare with glazed eyes at the emails pinging up on your screen. Mindless chatter, forwarded jokes, yet another blithering email from head office about appropriate use of the lunchroom dishwasher...

This is Martin Davies' life. He's a wannabe screenwriter stuck in a finance office in Cardiff, Wales. It's just another mind-numbing day at the office... except it isn't.

Today is September 11th, 2001.

Eleven is one of many books that have been written about and around the events of September 11th - a growing genre of literature called "Post 9/11 literature" about which I am writing my Masters thesis next year. Overall, this was an interesting book, the most unique thing about it being the way it is written. The narrative is presented through the emails that are coming into Martin's inbox as well as his replies. His thoughts are drafts that are saved but never sent. The placement of the events of another ordinary day against the backdrop of the unravelling of the one of the most historically significant events in recent history serves as a poignant reminder to all who remember this day just how it felt and "where were you when".

The atmosphere of this novel is ultimately depressing as we observe Martin's sanity unravelling thread by thread. It's unclear whether this unravelling is triggered by the events of 9/11 but I'd say it was safe to assume it is. Obvious other contributing factors include his failed relationship, his loathing of his job and position in life but this event seems to tip the balance. The novel ends ambiguously, and kind of unsatisfactorily. There isn't the typical crisis and resolution - 9/11 happens but nobody seems knows what it means or how to react to it. Then again - those who lived through that day know that this is pretty much exactly how it was all over the world: people staring at the TV in astonishment, completely lost for words.

I'm not sure if this will be useful for my thesis, but it was an interesting and quick read. As a representation of the events of 9/11 I think it does very well to capture the confusion and disbelief everyone felt. It doesn't pretend to have anything meaningful to say about what happened or try to explain it. It simply offers a snapshot of the day, from the other side of the globe, through the eyes of Joe Normal. A slice of history, happening in your inbox.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Some of my favourite sentences: Part IV

This nugget of wisdom comes from Jess Walter's novel The Zero, one of the post 9/11 novels I'm reading for my thesis.

"No kid ever choses to have his parents. They're just there when you wake up one day. And you can't just keep having sex and have more parents if these two don't work out."

Ah, ain't that the truth!

The Samurai's Garden: Review

The Samurai's Garden

By Gail Tsukiyama
Published in 1994
Published by St. Martin's Griffin, N.Y.

Normally, people think of book reviews as being mainly for recently published fiction, to introduce the latest novels written by the latest authors to the world. And usually, this is all good. But once in a while, I think it's good to mix it up and put a review of a less-recently published book out there, like this novel The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. Before this was given to me to read for my new book club, I had never heard of this book, nor its author. It's all part of the too many books, too little time problem - sadly I know I will never even hear about all of the 'must reads' out there, but I'm glad I got introduced to this one. And or that reason alone, I am writing this review, just in case anyone out there has missed this gem of a book.

Gail Tsukiyama is ethnically half Japanese, half Chinese but given she was born in San Francisco, 100% American. Given that I'm married to a Taiwanese guy and we both live in Taiwan but both feel that New Zealand is home, I am constantly intrigued by others who also walk the line between two cultures. Indeed, walking the line between two conflicting cultures is at the very heart of this novel.

Stephen, our narrator, has been sent away from his native Hong Kong to rural Japan to recuperate from tuberculosis on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930's. Although the two countries are locked in a bitter conflict, Stephan finds peace and comfort in the village of Tarumi where he stays with Matsu - a servant of his family for many years. As Stephen gets to know the silent Matsu more and more, he comes to realise that the hardship he feels in being away from his friends and family pales in comparison to the hardship those around him have suffered. This realisation spurs Stephen to grow in maturity and spirit and to look outside of his own introspection to find ways to help others.

Another factor which aids his recovery is Keiko - a fleeting, elusive presence in his life who captures Stephen's attention - but given the war between their two countries, their different cultures and her excessively strict father, can they ever find happiness together?

My favourite thing about this novel was the sheer beauty of the writing. The simplicity of the writing reminds me of an old-style Chinese painting of the mountains, it feels restful yet stimulating at the same time. Not once does the writing become boring or tired - just as I can look at these sorts of paintings for hours on end and not tire of it. It was a joy to read and has been added to the exclusive list of books I know that I will re-read, it really was that good.

If you haven't read this book, or anything by Gail Tsukiyama before I would definitely recommend that you have a look for her writing. I know I'm going to be scouring the bookshops for more!

Image credit: Here

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Books to movies.... always bad?

"Hollywood, in particular, seems to be like an exocet missile to hone in on whatever was good in a novel and remove it, destroy it and then proceed from there."

So said Robert Harris who is the author of many books (most recently Lustrum) on BBC Radio Five Live's Book Reviews with Simon Mayo.* From what I could gather, it sounded a lot like he'd had some very bad experiences of people adapting his work for the big screen - as have many other authors. Audrey Niffenegger, author of one of my all-time favourite books The Time Traveller's Wife was also on the same programme. She commented that she had been advised to completely let go of all artistic control when TTTW was adapted and as a result hadn't even been to see the finished result. This was particularly because the movie is not her book and you can't unsee what you have already seen - the memory of the movie will henceforth always taint her experience of the book.

It's for this very reason that I haven't gone to see TTTW in the movies - I loved this book and for me it lives in my memory as a place I can revisit when I next read the book (and I know I will) and I just don't want anyone else's idea of what the book looks like getting mixed up in all of that. Reading a book, after all, is a very personal experience. The settings of the books, the voices of the characters, the atmosphere of the places - you and the author have created that together just for your enjoyment. Nobody else ever sees or experiences the novel in exactly the same way, which is one of the great joys of literature. If you go to the movies with a friend, however, you know that they have seen exactly the same thing that you have seen.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not beating up on movies - I'm actually a great fan of them and very much enjoy watching a good film. It's just that they are two completely different mediums and I fear that something is always lost when the two worlds collide. There has only been one time that I have ever watched a movie adaptation of a book and not been disappointed by it and that was Peter Jackson's interpretation of Lord of the Rings. But even then - his vision of Mordor, whilst fantastically dark and horrifying, was not the same as my vision of Mordor. And so, a little something is lost - now I can only ever see Jackson's Mordor when I think of this novel.

Ultimately I'm not here to wax lyrical about whether the page is mightier than the silver screen. The choice here is not black and white and one is not better than the other, in my opinion. I just personally believe that if you really enjoyed a book and have a strong personal connection to it, it is wise to think twice about watching the movie adaptation of it.

What do you think? Have you ever seen a movie adaptation that ruined your enjoyment of a book? Or, have you ever seen an adaptation that improved a book? I'm keen to hear your thoughts!

* This quote was taken from the podcast released on 15th October 2009. Podcast is available through iTunes or the BBC World Service website.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: Review.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
By Mark Haddon
Published in 2003
Published by Vintage Contemporaries (this edition)

I took this little gem with me on my morning commute into Taipei city from TaoYuan yesterday. Usually the 35 minutes drags by with me counting down the stations until I finally arrive but yesterday was different. The stations whizzed by with me wrapped around the pole in the centre of the carriage, nose buried in this book. I was so engrossed I was scared to read it on the MRT just in case I missed my station.

This novel commences with a 'take no prisoners' opening - Wellington, the neighbourhood dog, has been killed by a garden fork. The narrator and protagonist, Christopher Boone, an autistic 15 year old, makes this gruesome discovery on one of his late night walks and decides to solve the mystery of who has killed Wellington in the vein of his favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, he uncovers some disturbing truths that rock the foundations of his carefully ordered world.

Written as a first person narrative, the reader gets an insight into the workings of somebody with autism. Mark Haddon had worked with autistic individuals when he was younger, according to my edition's author notes. Seeing the world through Christopher's eyes you vividly feel the overload of information and the stress that everyday life that we all take for granted causes him. I could relate somewhat to his feelings of being overloaded as there were times when I first moved here to Taiwan where it all just felt too much - stimulation overload - and I would have greatly liked to have just sat and rocked in a corner.

In addition to being an insight into the world of those who suffer from autism, this is a raw and honest look at the effects that caring for a child with special needs can have on parents, completely without passing judgement or taking some sort of moral high ground. It made me think - what if that were my child? How could I handle it? Indeed, would I be able to handle it? The characterisation of Christopher's parents is unflinching and in my opinion, it is this honesty that makes this book so valuable.

Overall, this book is an absolutely cracking read. Although you'll probably find that you'll get through it very quickly, it isn't a book that you will forget any time soon. Now I can see why people have been telling me to read this book for so long - so if you haven't already read it, now I'm telling you. This one is a must-read.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The rights of the reader: Review

Image credit: Here

The Rights of the Reader
By Daniel Pennac (Trans. Sarah Adams)
Published October 2006
Walker Books Limited

Cast your mind back. You're seven years old and you've just got your very own library card. Surrounded by silence and the smell of words and promised adventures, you run giddily towards the children's section. You run your hand over the shelves of books, some smooth, some bumpy, all tagged with some weird and unfathomable code. Before you know it, you've picked up something that has caught your attention and you've settled into the bright red beanbag for the long haul. You forget where you are, consumed by the voices and exploits of Asterix or the Famous Five and you can't believe it's time to go already when, an hour later, your Mum comes round the corner to find you.

Every week you come back and you always leave with a pile of books, one of which you're usually half way through by the time you get home. The need to read consumes you: you sneak off to the toilet to get in a few pages, you read late at night with a torch under the bedcovers. You are, in fact, a veritable addict, looking feverishly along the shelves to find your next hit.

Then, somewhere along the line, something happens. Reading loses some of the joy it once held - it becomes, unthinkably, a chore. A task that has to be completed by next Monday, with an 800 word essay to boot. High school literature studies have come home to roost. English class is now peering over your shoulder, pointing out that you shouldn't be reading that book, you should read this one, the required text. You know, the one sitting ominously on your desk, unreadable and daunting.

This is where the education system, according to Daniel Pennac, fails our kids. I recently read his amazing book The Rights of the Reader (translated by Sarah Adams) as part of a bookring through Bookcrossing and was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting something completely different - a fun and lighthearted look at reading as a hobby - but was met with an entertaining and brilliantly written manifesto on the importance of teaching our future generations to love reading and not make it a "should" - a word sure to kill any desire to do something.

Pennac points out that as kids, we loved to hear stories and would beg our parents again and again to read us our favourite books. It is in this tradition of oral storytelling, he argues, that reading is based. It's our desire to hear new stories and follow new heroes on new adventures that drives us from one finished book to the next new one. But as soon as interfere with our child's relationship with books and we disturb the private "alchemist's voice" in their minds, we start to suck their joy out of their reading experience. This, claims Pennac, is a crime of epic proportions. A relationship with books is one of the most consistent and satisfying ones that most people will have in their lives, after all.

The solution? Simple, claims Pennac. Take it back to the basics - oral storytelling. Read to those who have become disenchanted by the hard slog of required textbooks and compulsory reading. Re-introduce that spark. Draw them back in. Before you know it, they'll have rediscovered that "alchemist's voice" and they'll be off in their own private world of books again.

This book was a really fascinating read for me as I recognised that I had suffered a period of book fatigue until pretty recently. As a kid, I was the one hiding under the sheets with a book and a torch. I read an insane amount of books from all sorts of genres, right up until the age of 15 - that's when it started for me. Required reading to be completed within a ridiculously short period of time, essays to write and not to mention maths homework and geography study.... Luckily, I've rediscovered that old spark and have come back to the ranks of the voracious reader - one "right" at a time. If there's anyone out there that has lost their spark, or knows someone who is struggling with reading - I highly recommend this book. It'll surely help you bring them back from the brink of a world without books.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Bookcrossing makes the whole world a library

Up until 2 months ago, I was a booklover with a serious case of hoarding. It was getting to the point of ridiculous - I had just moved to Taiwan and now, with more limited space, I was having to double shelve my books. I was running out of room and I knew that this wouldn't (more likecouldn't) stop me from buying more books. Then it happened. One of the biggest epiphanies of my life, a major conversion - you could compare it to a "born again" moment: my aunt introduced me to bookcrossing.

Oh, sure, at first there was resistance: "You want me to what?! Give away my books? To random people?!" and denial: "I couldn't possibly do that, it's just not me!" but the sight of my groaning bookshelves and the thought of not being able to buy books because I wouldn't have anywhere to put them spurred me to action. "Fine!" I thought "Possibly there are a few books on there that I've read and won't ever want to read again.... Maybe."

After about 2 minutes I realised I had pulled about 10 books off my shelf that I had categorised "Never going to read that again" or "Hmm, what is that book doing on my shelf?!" Maybe there really was something here. Maybe I could clear some space on my beleaguered shelves for future purchases. I plonked down in front of my laptop with this pile of books and before I knew it I had registered myself and the books.

So what is bookcrossing anyway, you might be wondering? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines bookcrossing as "the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” But as a short search of the site soon showed me, actually there is a lot more to bookcrossing than just this. The site also provides the forum for those a little shy of leaving their beloved books in public places to share books with others through either direct swaps, known as RABCKs (Random Acts of Book Crossing Kindness) or through bookrings or bookrays – a kind of extended, travelling bookclub where one book travels from one person to the next, all over the world.

The best thing about bookcrossing for me is the tracking aspect of it - every book is tracked through the website. A book that has been registered on the website is given a bookcrossing ID number (BCID) which is written in the front cover of the book. The person releasing the book then makes a journal entry about the book, saying what they thought of it, what their plans are for it and give it a rating out of 10. The book is then released, either in the “wild” - a public place such as a cafe, second-hand bookstore or park bench, or through a “controlled release” as a RABCK or as a bookring or ray. When the book is found or the intended recipient receives it, the releaser is notified by email when they make a journal entry – and so the record continues!

Within minutes I was seriously hooked. Now, after four weeks of it I have released 2 books into the "wild" at the Community Services Center in TianMu, Taipei and sent out 4 other books on controlled releases. This week I'm setting up my first attempt at a bookray. As if this weren't enough, I'm also trying to make the library of donated books in the Community Services Center an Official Book Crossing Zone so I can get more people in Taipei's international community involved in bookcrossing. With the amount of expats that come through there, just imagine where some of the books could end up!

Once my library dreams were constricted to just my own set of shelves but now I'm coming to embrace a bookcrossing motto - that the whole world is a library and if you truly love a book you set it free. If you find a bookcrossing book out there - check it out and sign up. It's a serious fun!

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