Sunday, 27 February 2011

Sunday Salon: Thinking of Christchurch

This week has been a very sad one for everyone who is connected with New Zealand. As you will no doubt have heard, on Tuesday 22nd February a 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch, NZ's second largest city. This quake was smaller than the 7.1 that hit Christchurch 5 months ago but it caused infinitely more damage as the quake was shallower, buildings were already weakened by the previous quake and this time it struck in the middle of the day. As a result, a lot of my reading time has been directed towards keeping up to date with the happenings on the various news websites and on the BBC World's news updates.

Photo credit: Richard Cosgrove/The Press
Thankfully, the few people I did know down there are all alive and well but many aren't. The latest numbers put the death toll at 147 but there are still many people missing. As a Kiwi sitting half-way across the world it's really hard to know that there's nothing much you can do. There are thousands without the basics of power or clean water, one third of all buildings are likely to be condemned and torn down leaving people without homes and there are more injured people than the medical staff know what to do with. I strongly wish I could go back and help them out but I know I'd only get in the way. I've donated money of course but when something like this happens, I really just want to roll up my sleeves and help out.

Photo credit: Don Scott/The Press
Natural disasters happen all over the world and affect hundreds of thousands of people every year. Luckily, New Zealand was fairly well prepared for an earthquake (although I think it's fair to say that up until the September 2010 quake, nobody would have dreamed it would strike Christchurch) and is a prosperous nation with a stable and effective government. It could definitely be a lot worse, but it's still a nightmare for those stuck in the thick of it. These people are in my thoughts and have my sincere sympathies. Kia kaha, people of Christchurch. I know you will make it through.

If you would like to know more about what's going on, check out:
Stuff News Website
NZ Herald Website
TVNZ Website
Twitter and search for the #eqnz hashtag

If you would like to help out, have a look here:
TVNZ donation information page
Stuff News Website donation information page
Julie at Anglers Rest
Join in the 2 minutes of silence on Tuesday 1st March at 12.51pm (UTC+13) wherever you are and send good vibes, prayers and love to those affected.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Spinning: Review

By Michael Baron
Published by The Story Plant
Published in 2011
ISBN: 978-161188005-2

I was kindly sent this book by the publisher but not paid for my review.

We all know that guy. The guy who can hardly keep it in his pants, the one who seems willing to trample on anyone to get where he wants to go, the one always seen after work with a drink in his hand and a witty comeback on his lips. This guy in this novel is Dylan Hunter. Dylan has got it made - he lives in New York, has a fantastic PR job, and a string of women after him. Even though he acknowledges that he will eventually settle down, he doubts it will be any time before he hits 40... that is until Diane and Spring walk into his life at 3 a.m. one morning.

Diane is someone he had a fling with a few years back in Chicago, so when she arrives on his doorstep with a daughter about the right age naturally Dylan assumes she's his. She's not but she makes a huge impression on his life all the same. Diane and Spring stay with Dylan for a few days and give this perpetual bachelor a taste of domesticity - one he finds pretty enjoyable. But because life never goes how you'd expect it to, he suddenly finds that he's in for far more than just a taste when he becomes Spring's sole guardian.

This book is a fresh perspective on a familiar story. Normally we'd hear about the single Mom moving to the Big Apple with daughter in tow from the mom herself but this time we're hearing it from the guy. The result is that when reading this you get both a comfortable feeling when reading a narrative you've heard before (but love revisiting) and a feeling of newness. It's an interesting combination but one I very much enjoyed. The story is a good, easy read which keeps the reader involved. The development of the character of Dylan is particularly satisfying to watch but I think my favourite person in this novel is undoubtedly Spring. Spring is the embodiment of the joy of childhood - the innocence, playfulness and timely reminder that there are far more important things in life than wondering about your next sales pitch or chatting up someone at a bar. Spring gives Dylan's life depth and meaning and transports him from being a 'lad' into being a man.

The ending of the book works, but it wasn't what I was expecting. I was rather hoping for something a little different (admittedly, the more predictable ending) to what actually happened and as a result the book finished on a bit of a hiss compared to the roar it had been most of the way through. I know, I know, endings are the hardest part of anything to write but if you're given a choice between doing something unexpected and doing the expected (which usually gives the readers what they want) you really need to have a very cool unexpected ending to make it worthwhile. I'm hard to please, what can I say?

Aside from my minor quibble with the ending, I really liked this book. It's perfect Sunday afternoon/holiday reading - not too heavy, not too light, engaging and satisfying. If you'd like to read a love story/coming of age tale from the bloke's perspective, this is a good place to start.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry: Review

Image credit here
Her Fearful Symmetry
By Audrey Niffenegger
Published by Vintage Books
Published in 2010
ISBN: 078-0-099-52418-2

Hubby dearest bought this book for me and I was not paid for this review.

Do you ever find that sometimes your reading follows strange and unplanned themes? I had a run of this recently. I read The Thirteenth Tale and then read this book, both books had multiple sets of twins in them and warped family relationships. It's funny how books do that to you sometimes - it's like one book is feeding onto another, interconnected. The relationship between many twins is the same way - you're not totally sure where one twin ends and the other begins. They're close in a way not a lot of people experience or even understand, bonded right down to the cellular level.

Julia and Valentina Poole are two such twins. Young, beautiful, exceptionally gifted but completely directionless, they are drifting through life. Julia, the dominant twin has ideas but no staying power, dragging the submissive Valentina ("Mouse") behind her. Never mind that Valentina has dreams of her own, Julia just assumes that these will be overridden  by a desire for them to always be together.
However, an opportunity for change comes when their Aunt Elspeth dies and leaves her London apartment to them... on conditions that they live there for at least one year before they sell it and their mother, Elspeth's twin Edie, and their father never set foot in the house. Intrigued, the twins pack up their lives in America and head for England. When they arrive they encounter Robert, their Aunt's much younger lover who lives downstairs; Martin, a crossword setter who lives upstairs in the throes of severe obsessive compulsive disorder; and various other people who work in the Highgate cemetery over which their apartment looks and with which their lives become entwined.

Highgate Cemetery
Image credit here
Locking down the specifics of what kind of story this is proved complicated. It's a ghost story, it's a family drama, it has elements of mind-bending fantasy in it not to mention mystery. It is, in short, Niffenegger at it again. Was The Time Traveller's Wife a love story or a sci-fi? Both? Whatever it was in genre, it was certainly one of my all-time favourite books and so I was very much looking forward to reading this one to see what she'd come up with next.

I liked this book but at times it is just plain weird. It takes your ability to suspend disbelief right to the outer limits and then some but not because it's a ghost story. What I found weird, and also utterly intriguing, was the dynamics in the relationships. The sense of smothering in the closeness of Julia and Valentina, the constant bugging question of why Elspeth and Edie were estranged for so long, the haunting of the girls by Elspeth... it was all very convoluted. I like twists and I really appreciate it when the author manages to surprise me but this book went above and beyond that. It had me staring at the pages in gobsmacked amazement, shaking my head. Especially at the end. I think it lost a bit of traction at the end and careened off into la-la land.

The Time Traveller's Wife was a heck of an act to follow and I think my experience of this book may have been a little clouded by the fact I enjoyed its predecessor so much. But random plot twists aside, I did enjoy this book. If you haven't yet read it and are considering it, my advice is forget it's written by Audrey Niffenegger. Put Time Traveller's Wife out of your head and you'll find this a fun read. Mind blowing, reality warping, occasionally jaw-dropping but overall, fun.

Have you read this book and/or the Time Traveller's Wife? Let me know your thoughts!

Other reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry:
Bex at An Armchair By The Sea

Monday, 21 February 2011

Committed - A Love Story: Review

By Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Penguin
Published in 2010
ISBN: 978-0-14-311899-2

I bought this book in an uncontrollable book binge at PageOne in Taipei. I was not paid for this review.

When I walked down the aisle nearly two years ago, I thought I was ready. I thought that I knew what I was getting myself in for. I thought I was good to go and ready for married life. In hindsight, I had no idea what I was getting into. To be fair, the marriage situation I was getting myself into was a little outside of the ordinary - we'd been together for six years at that stage but for three of those years we'd lived in different countries... different HEMISPHERES even: he was in Taiwan and I was in New Zealand. Then after three years of a two week trip here and a 10 day trip there, I relocated to Taiwan. Picked up everything in my life that would fit in cardboard boxes and trundled over to a country where I didn't know the language, didn't have a job or even know many people to join a man who had been living like a bachelor for three years. I thought that this would all go off without a hitch. How naiive was I?!

The first year of our marriage can be summed up in three words: steep learning curve. Luckily, we survived and life is now good. I absolutely love living here, am slowly picking up the language, have a great job, amazing new friends and plenty of Skype credits to keep in contact with everyone in New Zealand. My only wish is that Committed had been around for me to read before I got married.

Just in case you don't know the story, here's the brief version: Elizabeth Gilbert was a successful writer living in New York with her husband. Problem: she has no desire to be married to him anymore. He's not a bad guy, it's just not a happening thing anymore. Second problem: he disagrees. Commence messy and drawn out divorce proceedings, a rebound love affair and a near mental breakdown. Elizabeth decides what she really needs is a year to figure herself out and chooses Italy (for the love of the language), India (for the attempts at meditation and inner peace) and Bali in Indonesia (because a medicine man told her she would return to see him and he'd teach her everything). She goes. She eats, she prays, she falls in love and then she comes back to write a bestseller about it all.

In Bali, she met a gorgeous Brazilian gentleman who she calls Felipe in Eat, Pray, Love and who is obviously the guy who she falls in love with. However, as they have both been through traumatic divorces they swear eternal love for each other but refuse to marry. This all works rather well until border control finds out that Felipe has been using a visitor's visa to effectively live in the States and turfs him out. The only way back in is if they get married. They spend a year living in and around South-East Asia while they battle bureaucracy and this book evolved as Elizabeth's attempt to get her head in the right space to enter the marriage game again.

Although this is certainly not an academic text, it is very well researched. When Ms. Gilbert has a problem, she reads about it. I sympathise with this response, I do exactly the same thing. The resulting book is half memoir, half sociological/historical tour of the institution of marriage and I found it utterly fascinating. It's split into several sections, such as Marriage and Expectations, Marriage and History, and Marriage and Women, coming at the question of "Why get married" from various angles. The most interesting thing I learned from this book? The fact that despite culture telling us that women are the ones who want to get married and men reluctantly acquiesce, marriage is actually far more statistically beneficial for men than it is women. Married men live longer, get richer, are happier and suffer less addiction problems than single men BUT the exact opposite is true for women. It's not just that marriage is less beneficial for women - statistically it seems like a really bad idea. So why on earth do we do it?

It's this question that Gilbert answers: eloquently, honestly and intimately. At the end of the book, I am happy to report that while it was an eye-opening experience, I'm still glad I got married and want to remain married. If you know of anyone who is getting married soon, this would make a really good present. I know I'll be recommending it - marriage is a massive decision and it's best to into it as well informed as you can be. Reading this book reminded me of why I wanted to get married (because I adore the man) and why staying married is a good idea (we can build an awesome life together). As a wise person once told me: there are up and downs in everyone's marriage. Stick it out and it usually gets better.

What's the best advice you could give someone who is about to get married? What's the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you regarding love and marriage?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading roundup

This week it was wet, cold, grey and uninspiring outside: perfect weather for snuggling up with a book under a blanket! Luckily, we had our February book club meeting on Wednesday - typically a highlight of my month. Our book club got started when a few of us met at Survival Chinese at the Community Services Center. We'd all pretty much just arrived and were figuring out life in Taiwan. It's a nervous time when you relocate to a new community, whether it be 100 miles or 10,000 miles from your home. The same questions circle in your head: will I find friends? Will I like it? What will I do when I get there? It doesn't matter how many times you've done it before. Happily, we were all new and so were in the same boat. Over a cup of coffee one morning, someone asked if we knew of any book clubs that were accepting new members. There wasn't so we formed our own and we're now into our second year of reading and have 15 members.

The Book Club: good books, good coffee and cake
This month we were reading a book that I had nominated: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I was a little nervous as my enthused Atwood recommendations have not always met with success in the past. Despite being a fully paid up member of the "Atwood is Awesome" fan club, I know that her fiction can be a bit of an acquired taste. I got increasingly worried when I heard through the grapevine that a number of people were having a tough time with the book. Still, armed with my list of questions for discussion I braved the meeting. As I stirred my cup of tea, I eyed the other ladies... there were no signs of any concealed weapons so I saw fit to proceed.

What transpired was relieving. Although the larger portion had at first started off wondering what on earth this book was all about and why on earth I had recommended it, at least half ended up loving it and wanted to read Oryx and Crake, the complementary book and first in this MaddAddam trilogy (third book pending). Those that I failed to convince had good reasons: they found it too preachy or heavy-handed - and I can see how they could feel that. PHEW! It's always a bit of a risk when you put yourself out there and recommend a book that you really like but this time it paid off.

Have you ever made a recommendation for a book club or for a friend that you were a bit worried about? Tell me about it!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Stuff that's tickled me recently... (3)

Margaret Atwood, just
one of my many fave female writers
Gender imbalance in the literary world:
Following on from what Lionel Shriver was saying in the first Stuff That's Tickled Me about problems with having her books taken seriously by the powers that produce her book covers - this Guardian article looks at the gender imbalance reviews and reviewing in major literary publications such as London Review of Books, Granta and New York Review of Books to name a few.  Check out the statistics - the world of reviewing is clearly skewed towards men. I find that really odd considering most book bloggers who review books online are women... I wonder if it's because the reviews these publications publish are dominated by literary criticism from the academic domain. Anyone got any thoughts?

If I was going to get it,
this would be the one
Further to this debate, the Telegraph weighs in by commenting that despite 'literary hard-hitters' being overwhelmingly male, this may only be because women have only relatively recently been admitted to serious literary circles. They make a few good points though: the best selling author of this age is a woman (JK Rowling, represent) and the most important person in publishing is Oprah. So I'm certainly not about to start losing hope yet. Keep it up girls!! (As a side note, it's funny that all female authors are referred to by both first and last name whereas half of the men on the list are only referred to by last name. Seems like a really rugby team/military thing to do.)

The smell of books in a can:
Love the smell of books? I'm a self-confessed book-sniffer. I love the smell of books both new and old; I love the waft of literature and knowledge that hits you when you enter a library and this is one of the prevailing reasons I refuse to switch to an e-reader.... but apparently there's a cure on hand for those who have an e-reader and miss that familiar aroma. Book flavoured aerosol. I'm still not totally sure how I feel about this one....

Keeping on top of bookish news:
Undoubtedly a lot of you will already have heard of this one, but I'm a recent discoverer of the beauty that is Shelf Awareness. Great little e-newsletter about books, publishing and all of the sort of things we all love.

Are these the books our kids will be studying one day?
I came across this by way of One Person's Journey Through a World of Books and also saw a post about it from Sarcastic Female Literary Circle. Entertainment Weekly produced a list of the best reads from the 1983-today and deemed them to be the New Classics. The books that people would still be reading and talking about and studying in decades to come. I'm not entirely convinced by some of the inclusions on the list (Da Vinci Code a classic? Please say it ain't so!) but despite the potential longevity of these books it's a darned good reading list. I've knocked of twelve of them and about 10 more are waiting patiently for me on my shelves. How about you? How many have you read?

How to not look like a Twitter newbie:
As you all know, I'm a recent and enthusiastic convert to Twitter and despite my best efforts, I'm sure my first few weeks made me look like a complete newbie. This article about how to start on Twitter and not look green (that I found thanks to Coffee and a Book Chick) is slightly too late for me but I got some good tips from it. I changed my background from standard blue to something more 'branded'. I'm learning every day.

The cover in question...
Taipei International Book Expo 2011:
In some local news, the Taipei International Book Expo has just been here. This article from Publisher's Weekly is a glowing report of the positivity abuzz there. Much to my chagrin, this one did not show up on my bookish stuff radar until too late. I promptly set up and alert for it on Google so in 2012 I'll know about it in advance. For a insider's view of what happened there, check out Shu Flies' overview post.

Caption competition fun:
Finally, a funny one. I came across this caption competition for the cover (see right) of Female body in Medicine and Literature. Some of the suggestions had me in stitches (pun intended). Enjoy!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: Review

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua
Published by Bloomsbury
Published in 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1316-4

I purchased this book myself to see what the fuss was about and was not paid for this review.

Dichotomies are a dangerous thing. Us versus them, East vs West - it's not a story that ends well for anyone. Not to mention that most of the time it's patently untrue. One thing I've learned in life so far is that no matter which two cultures you're comparing, you're just as likely to find similarities as you are differences. Which is not to eschew cultural difference and try and make everyone the same which is equally as dangerous but it's a plea for middle ground - not a concept that I think Amy Chua is overly familiar with.

She started writing this book as a comparison of Chinese parenting to Western parenting and although she says in the first few pages that you don't have to be Chinese to be a Chinese mother and many mothers of Chinese heritage aren't Chinese Mothers at all, the label remains. You can couch all you like but if you call a spade a spade, that's the name that is going to stick. Personally, I would rather call this style of parenting "Extreme" rather than "Chinese." And if she thinks that Western parenting is all about choice, freedom and liberty I would like to firmly tell her that no, trust me, that really isn't always the case. But that's another story.

That said, Amy Chua is not a cultural anthropologist and this was not designed to be a parenting guide. It's a memoir, pure and simple. It's one mother's story of how she raised her kids which turned out to work brilliantly for one daughter but was a terrible idea for the other. And she knows it. She started writing this book the day after her thirteen year old daughter screamed abuse and smashed glasses in the middle of a restaurant in Russia so the whole way through the point she was driving at was 'boy did I learn a lesson.' I'll bet she did. For all her claims of being a Chinese mother, her second daughter Lulu seemed vastly disrespectful to her mother. Maybe it's just me, maybe its because I don't have kids yet and I have no idea but I'd never have given my mother the cheek Lulu gave hers and if my daughter gave me that sort of cheek I'd be devastated. Check in with me in a decade or so and I might think differently.

(L-R): Lulu, Amy and Spohia
Erin Patrice O'Brien for The Wall Street Journal
A lot has been made of the extremity of Amy Chua's mothering. Yup, it is extreme. Jaw-droppingly so at times. The oft-quoted examples of how she forced her younger daughter to play for hours without a toilet break, called her older daughter garbage and rejected handmade birthday cards are all there. But when you read them in the context of the book, you understand a little better. This is a woman who is manically intense and knows it. She knows that writing this kind of thing down would get her some serious attention of the negative kind. But she still put it out there. She was honest. She didn't sugar coat it. And while I really disagree with her method I have to admire her courage.

What's good about the way she does things? Well, quite a lot actually. If someone with a better temperament had taken the approach she had, it probably would have been a far easier read. You see, the things that she's proposing by and large aren't terrible. For example, she said that you should instill in your kids that you think they can do more. Expect the best. Push them to succeed. Teach them the value of hard work. Get alongside them and practice with them. The point that Amy missed as her kids were growing up? When to step back. The ability to see when she's being more of a hinderance than a help. But just because she was a little over the top doesn't mean that these points are invalid. I think it's a great thing to assume strength in your child rather than assume fragility. It's good to spend time with them helping them to achieve goals. It's good to teach them that raw talent is one thing but without hard work it's not going to get you very far.

Life is tough and the job of parents is to prepare their kids for it the best they can. Amy Chua was doing the best she could and when she (finally) realised her method of mothering Lulu wasn't working she did adapt. Somewhat. But one method does not work for all kids and even within one family I often see parents adapting their styles to the personalities of their children. It's one heck of a job and to all of the parents out there who do it, putting your heart and soul into your kids, giving them the best of yourself every single day I am in awe. When I think of the future generation, I don't wring my hands and wail because I look around at my friends who are parents and see what a fabulous job they are all doing and I know we're going to have some great leaders in the future. They're going to get there by different roads but when they do they'll be incredible.

A lot of things have been written about this book in the media, starting with this article. As is usually the way with media hype, a lot of it is just that: hype. Amy Chua is not a menace to society. She hasn't abused her children. Maybe she hasn't done it the way a lot of folks would have but she did her best and she told us her story of how it happened. If you want to know the real deal - read the book. It's a very entertaining and pretty fast read of how one mother came to realise that her method of mothering needed to be adapted and changed before she lost her daughter altogether. I'm really glad she learned that lesson because a mother driving away her daughter for the sake of stupid pride is one of life's greatest tragedies.

Now we wait for the memoirs of Lulu. That'll be an interesting book.

Other reviews of Tiger Mother:
Wallace at Unputdownables
Catherine at Shu Flies
Kim at Parenting Book by Book
A Kindle in Hong Kong
Flower Patch Farm Girl

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Musical reading or reading musically?

Image Credit Here
This is something I've not yet been able to personally understand - people plugged into their MP3 device who are reading at the same time. It truly flummoxes me. Are these people reading with the music as background noise or are they skimming the book whilst rocking out to whatever they might be listening to. I have considered, of course, that they might actually be listening to the audiobook of the book in front of them but I somehow doubt that's the case for the majority of these musical multi-taskers and because of that, they fascinate me.

Noise level whilst reading is a really personal thing that depends not only the kind of reader you are but what kind of thing you're reading. If I'm reading a dense theoretical article or a work of fiction, then there is no way that music beyond the realm of background muzak can be tolerated. That said, if I have complete silence then I get distracted far more easily. It's like a part of my brain is a small child that needs to be distracted so the grown-up part of the brain can concentrate. For anything less dense like an interesting but not too challenging article then any music without lyrics is fine, so this is where my 'oontz' collection of Ministry of Sound and the like comes in pretty handy. But if anything with lyrics is playing, then I am really only skimming whatever I'm reading. As for non-musical noise, I have my dear husband to thank for training me to be able to block out nearly anything after years of being in the same room as he plays Playstation games!

In any case, the reason I'm writing this post is to find out from you about your 'reading condition' preferences. Do you need silence? A bit of noise? And if you're one of those incredible people who can listen to their iPod AND read I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Readathon Wrap -up Post

When I read other blogs, I'm blown away by other people's reading speeds. I used to think I was a fast reader until I became a book blogger! This weekend was no exception. While other bloggers taking part in this readathon were chewing through multiple books, I was plodding slowly through one. It was one of those heavy going books but I really enjoyed it. I didn't quite achieve my goal of finishing it, mainly because Saturday got pulled from underneath me, but I'm glad I got so much of it read.

The final results:
Friday 5th (evening): Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 101 - 177
Saturday 6th (evening): Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 177 - 211 
Sunday 7th (day):  Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 211 - 338

Total pages read: 237
Total hours spent reading: 8
Amount of fun had: Lots

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading roundup

Since this weekend was Unputdownables' 48-hour readathon I've been somewhat pre-occupied with reading this week. Well duh! I hear the audience shout. You're a book blogger! What next? You tell us how fond you are of a good story? Good point but I'm not only talking about the act of me reading books. I've also been very much taken in with the 'being read' aspect of book blogging lately.

You see, at the end of last year I had about 50 followers and an average of about 5 hits per day. I was happy enough with this and most grateful for the 50 souls who liked what they saw on my blog enough to hit "Follow".  I wished I could get past this seemingly magical number of 50 followers but then I wasn't really sure how. So, things were just trundling along until I came face to face with two things:
1) Twitter
2) Bloggiesta

I had long eschewed Twitter for one reason (which remains true today): I just don't care to hear about the micro-details of anyone's day and I'm darned sure they don't want to hear about mine. I was fairly well convinced that Twitter was just a collection of
12.34pm - Eating a sandwich for lunch - yum cheese and tomato!
12.46pm - Yawn I don't want to go back to work.
12.57pm - Ok maybe a cup of coffee will help me do this job without me dying of boredom.
12.59pm - Someone drank the last of the coffee and didn't refill it! Anger!
Etc etc ad nauseum.
But then I started noticing the Follow Me on Twitter buttons on a large number of book blogs that I read, enjoyed and respected. Hmm, I thought. Perhaps if these intelligent folks here are using it, there might be something in it. So I took a peek. And then I realised what the fuss was about. I posted my first tweet in November 2010 and became a serious user after the second of my recent epiphanies, Bloggiesta.

I had seen Bloggiesta happening on the blogosphere but I'd been a bit shy to join in. Why? I have no idea, it's daft I know. However this year I decided to go for it. It was actually kind of perfect timing as I had just been doing a bit of an overhaul of my layout and theme.  So with a bluster of enthusiasm, I signed up for a few mini-challenges and dedicated a good number of hours to sitting in front of my laptop working on my blog. I learned so much. I learned things I knew I didn't know anything about as well as things I had no idea I didn't know about. Huge shout-out to Maw Books for organising it.

So armed with a new Twitter account and a much increased knowledge thanks to Bloggiesta, I turned to blogging with renewed enthusiasm and determination. I'm reading and commenting on more blogs, spending time on dreaming up post ideas and generally putting a lot more time into this bog. So far so good - my hit rate has increased to an average of 30 per day within 2 weeks and I've got 8 new followers. Yay!

In terms of real life, nose in a paperback reading I've been making my way through Orhan Pamuk's Snow for Unputdownables' Readathon. My progress has been something akin to trying to walk through a thick fall of fresh snow - slow, hard work but brilliantly beautiful. It feels like a novel that needs to have time taken over it so I'm honouring that, even though I'm very aware that there are more people in the Bookcrossing ring after me who are waiting to read this!

Snow progress:
Friday 5th (evening): Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 101 - 177 or nine chapters
Saturday 6th (evening): Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 177 - 211 or three chapters
Sunday 7th (day):  Snow (Orhan Pamuk) 211 - 277 and counting (I'm writing this in the afternoon)

Wow, that ended up being quite a long post. If you made it to the end, congrats! Out of interest.... Bloggers: what have you done/do on a regular basis to increase the readership of your blog? Readers: what makes you come back to a blog?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Readathon 4th - 6th February 2011

What I'm going to read:
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
It's been a slow but enjoyable read but this is a Bookcrossing book with more people waiting to read this so I need to get cracking! Hope to finish it this weekend.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I want to get to page 124 so I'm up to date with my read-a-long schedule. Shouldn't be hard, I'm loving it so far.

I know it doesn't seem like much but I'm anticipating that Snow will take up much of my time. Plus I have some academic reading I need to get done for el thesiso which cannot be ignored - but hey it's reading!

My fellow readathon peeps:
Unputdownables (Superstar organiser of this event)
She is Too Fond of Books
Miss Remmers
Bitsy Bling Books
Must Read Faster
The Zen Leaf
Nose in a Book
The Right Broad
My Reader's Block
Coffee and a Book Chick
Lit and Life

If you think this sounds like fun, go along to Unputdownable's website and sign up!

Friday night - I managed to read 77 pages of Snow. I'm really enjoying this book - it's not one to be rushed but rather savoured and enjoyed so I'm giving it the time it deserves. All of this done, of course, to the continuing fireworks explosions going on in the neighbourhood park in aid of Chinese New Year. I'm really ready for that to stop now.

Saturday started off full of fizz and promise as hubby took care of doggy duty and I grabbed an extra couple of hours sleep (ah bliss!) After I got up and made us some brunch, we took Kratos (our dog) out for a run out by the High Speed Rail station where there are lots of empty parks without dogs so he can be safely off leash. Came home - got cuppa - sat down - phone rings. Friends we haven't seen in ages say they have the day free and can they come to see us. Well of course we weren't going to say no. Fast forward to bed-time. I managed to get an hour and a half of reading in before I got tired so managed about 40 pages or so. Not great progress but hey, it's something. Tomorrow the hubster is at work all day so I'm hoping for the next update to be far more impressive!

A day to myself is normally filled with thesis work and catching up on housework but today I gave myself express permission to just read for fun. So far today, I've knocked off 90 pages of Snow which doesn't seem like an awful lot but I did also manage a blog post, a load of washing and a nap in amongst all of the reading. And since it's merely 7pm here the night is young... more later.

Stuff that's tickled me recently... (2)

E-Book on an iPad
Credit Here
E-Books increase people's reading time:
A recent study from iModerate Research Technologies and Brock Associates has found that people who have a MFD (Multi-functional device) with them basically all of the time now read more as a result of always having a book with them in electronic form. And not just one book either - they can have a huge number of titles in their bag with them thanks to e-books. They're generally reading at times when I myself would pull a book out of my bag and sneak in a few pages - on the bus, waiting for an appointment etc - except now they don't have to be a dedicated bookworm who carries books around with them specifically for these times. They just happen to have them already. While I'm not personally an e-book reader (I just can't go past a hard copy book) I have nothing against them and in fact cheer them on heartily if it means that people are now reading more. I'm all for that!

From E-books to Vooks:
Now this is something funky - Vooks. Apparently these are basically e-books on crack, the souped-up version that include interviews, video clips, the whole multimedia experience of what was once a humble books, 300 or so pages of the printed word. I'm not entirely sure if I think this is a brilliant idea or if it's a bit gimmicky. I guess time will tell.

Toyo Shibata
redit: Reuters/Asukashinsha/Handout
It's never too late:
Now this is one for the inspirational files - a 99-year old Japanese grandmother, Mrs. Toyo Shibata, has just sold 1.5 million copies of her first book (self-published) of poetry. She turned to writing poetry when she had to give up dancing at 92 years old. (92! I'll be chuffed to still be kicking around at that age, much less worrying what  I should do with my time now I have to stop dancing!) Now, at 99, her poetry book is selling like hotcakes. Just goes to show it's never too late to have a crack at something. I take my hat off to her.

Yann Martel
Credit: Yann Martel

Man on a mission:
Yann Martel, best known for his Booker Prize winning The Life of Pi, has spent the last four years and 100 books trying to educate the Canadian Prime Minister on the joys and value of literature. He's quoted in the article as saying "We've become slaves to our work and have forgotten that it's in moments of leisure and stillness, when we're free from working with a hoe or at a keyboard, that we can contemplate life and become fully ourselves."While I know nothing about the Canadian PM or Canadian politics in general, this is totally an endeavour I can get behind. I'm all for getting people hooked on the joys of reading and helping those in charge of the purse strings value the arts in general. Without the arts, what do we have? When our descendants look back at us it's not only the business successes, the architectural achievements or technological advances they will care about. They'll (surely) want to know more about us as a people, want so glimpse inside our minds and souls. Where better to capture that than in our literature and film? 

Bibliotheca Alexandrina at night
Credit here
Keeping the libraries safe:
Despite massive unrest in Egypt and demands for out with the old and in with the new, this doesn't apply to the books at Bibliotheca Alexandrina which is being protected by organised groups of the city's youth. For all of the despairing head shaking that usually goes on about 'the youth of today' I think it's fair to say that Egypt, at least, doesn't seem to have much to worry about. Good on you, guys! Keep up the good work.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Happy Chinese New Year!!

Chinese New Year Lanterns
Credit Here
Living in Taiwan has extended my festive season. It used to start at the beginning of December and last until early January. Now it lasts right through to the middle of February. It's brilliant! I get two sets of time off work and a double whammy of fun times.

Talking to my Taiwanese friends here has revealed interesting differences in points of view about Christmas, New Years and Chinese New Years. Christmas for me (being of British and Kiwi extraction) is all about getting together with your family, eating stupid amounts of food, relaxing and doing large amounts of nothing at all. Christmas for my Taiwanese friends is more of a romantic holiday - time to take someone special out for a nice meal. The same goes for my Japanese sister-in-law. Christmas is all about the lurve.

Compare this with my concept of New Years (not Chinese) which basically revolves around friends and fun times with varying amounts of celebratory vino (less and less as I get closer to being of a respectable age) and of course a massive countdown to midnight followed by epic fireworks. In Taiwan, this is pretty much how it goes down, but in Japan it's different - there it's a family celebration, and time, I understand, to go along to the temple and pray for good fortune.

Now we come to Chinese New Year - what I've come to think of as Chinese culture's answer to a Western Christmas. It's whole family together time, with much eating and merry-making. The gift of choice for younger family members are the coveted 'hong-bao' (red envelopes containing money) and almost every dish on the table has some significance. I'm no expert and this isn't intended to be a serious anthropological piece but I can tell you this: At midnight when we are celebrating new year with my parents in law, we are served a massive plate of steaming water dumplings. These dumplings are significant because they look like little money bags and so eating them is thought to bring prosperity. But here's the catch - you can't keep count of how many you're eating, or else you will limit the amount of money that you will get in that year. Of course, once I was told this all I could hear in my head as I ate them was "One.... two... STOP IT!..... three.....four...."!

Chinese New Year dinner 2009
Credit: Kathryn Liu 2009
This year, as my parents in law are in NZ, bro and sis in law are in Japan and hubby is working I was going to be on my lonesome for Chinese New Year but one of the families I have become close to here in Taipei weren't having any of that and I was adopted for the night. Of course, other family relations had invited me to come celebrate with them but it would have been an overnight trip, leaving the doggy all on his lonesome. I had a lovely time, ate a lot of very tasty food, had a laugh and avoided singing karaoke. I'm now back at home and contemplating the end of the Year of the Tiger and the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit whilst simultaneously worrying about my best friend who is bunkered down in Cairns, QLD waiting for the biggest cyclone in Australia's recent history to pass over. (It occurred to me how much the culture of my current home must be seeping into my psyche when I caught myself thinking that it was the Year of the Tiger going out with a roar). I've been basically glued to Twitter updates and online news coverage for the last 24 hours - dinner excepted - and just hope fervently that they're OK and nothing dramatic is happening to them.

As for me, my Chinese new year's eve is drawing to a close. I'm snuggled up on the couch with a snoring doggy by my side, a full tummy and the dulcet tones of half of my neighbourhood setting off what seems to be all of the gunpowder products on this side of the Taiwan Strait in the park behind my apartment building. I hope that the Year of the Rabbit is a peaceful, happy, healthy and prosperous time for all of you.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

War and Peace Wednesdays: February 2nd

As at February 2nd, 2011
Pages read so far - 65

Confidence level - 5/5: At this pace I should remain on track!

Words I have had to look up:
Approbation - Approval or praise

Comments - Well the read-a-long has officially begun so we're off and running. I have until this time next week to read up to page 124 which shouldn't be too much of a drama. Two interesting things I noted during my reading this week: (1) It seems an international truth that young people plus alcohol equals stupidity. Strapping a policeman to a bear's back? Really??! and (2) They sure hook up young in this book. Running around making promises to be married at 12 years old, making it official at 16...  wow. Although there are some things that never seem to change no matter where you are, this one is not one of them. I thought it was an interesting contrast. 

Also I saw on an episode of Oprah that there's a movie called The Last Station about Tolstoy's life. Has anyone seen this and was it interesting? I read an article in the London Book Review not too long ago about the madness that was Tolstoy's relationship with his wife and how it drove him to his death so with that and reading this I'm curious. Thoughts?

Oh, and is anyone else joining me on this quest? Go on, you know you want to!!