Sunday 20 November 2011

Sunday Salon: Caution! Thesis in Progress.

We're finally at that magical stage, folks, when the months of reading and thinking and changing directions and reading some more is coming to fruition: the real writing of my thesis. Don't get me wrong, I've been banging away on the keyboard for quite a few months now but now I can feel it all pulling together. It's making sense. It's going in a logical progression. I can see the map to the finish line. Thank Gawd. I'm taking December to focus exclusively on final write up (yay for supportive bosses!!) so hopefully by the time new year rolls around I will be all but done. That just means being a hermit for a month. Wish me luck.

In other news, it is time for Le Grande Book Club Nominations. Although I already have far too many ideas (I have a list of 7 possibles, limit per person is 2) I would like to humbly ask you to suggest others or give feedback on my choices so far. The list is:
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The Submission by Amy Waldman
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Marriage Plot by Jeffry Eugenides
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Also, it was my birthday this month so hubby took me to Sun Moon Lake here in Taiwan to celebrate. It was startlingly beautiful so I wanted to share a few pics here with you...

Sun Moon Lake
The lake at dawn

Sun Moon Lake
Heading off for a day up the mountain

Sun Moon Lake
Looking across the lake

Sun Moon Lake
Coming down the mountain on the gondola

Hope everyone is well and enjoying November!

Friday 18 November 2011

Burned by the Blurb

Image credit
Oh, that feeling of anticipation as you open up a new book. The delicious smell of the print floats off the pages, inviting you in as you settle down into the corner of the couch to start what you're sure will be a beautiful new relationship. Perhaps one for the ages! With cup of steaming tea by your elbow and dog snuggled up on your feet, you turn to the first page. Ah, bliss... Part way through the book, however, you realise that something is amiss. Something, somewhere is not quite ringing true. While it's not bad, this book is not going in the direction that you thought it would be - at least the direction you thought it would be when you read the blurb on the back... 

About eighteen months ago, I read A Gate at the Stairs in preparation for my thesis about post-9/11 literature. I had heard rave reviews about it and so I was really looking forward to digging in. As is my habit, before I started reading it properly, I read the synopsis on the inner flap of the cover (I'd splashed out and bought a hardback - that's how much I'd wanted to get my hands on this book) to get an idea of what I was in for. This is where my problems began. You see, this 300-word synopsis of the book was, in my opinion, completely misleading. I don't mean "misleading" in the Star Wars is a tender love story set in the Bronx during the 1930's kind of way. I mean more in the main relationship in Star Wars is the brotherhood between C3P0 and R2-D2 kind of way. I was expecting, and therefore looking for, the wrong plot line and in the end, the story I ended up reading didn't resemble the one I thought I was going to read at all. As you might imagine - vague disappointment ensued.

You could very well argue that it was my fault to go into something with expectations and assumptions and smugly claim some tripe about making an ass out of you and me - yes yes all of this is true - but really. Who among us buys a book, let alone reads it without at least checking out the back cover? I know I never do. Normally, this isn't a problem but this time I was well and truly burned by the blurb. It turned what I thought would be a fabulous book into an unsatisfying reading experience, but through no fault of the novel itself. 

Luckily, there is a happy end to this story. I just re-read it, freed of the false impressions of the previous reading and enjoyed it far better this time. I did enjoy it last time but without that thundercloud of "I've been duped!" hanging over me, this time I was able to fully engage in the brilliance of it. In fact, the difference in reading experience was so striking that it got me wondering if anyone else had ever had this kind of problem before with any other book or if anyone had actually read this book (and synopsis) and had no problems whatsoever. Or have you had this problem and had the chance (or inclination) to re-read the book to see if you could fix the issue? 

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Glass Castle: Review

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Published by Virago
Published in 2005
ISBN: 978-1-84408-182-0

I read this book for book club and purchased this book myself. I was not paid for this review. 

When a well-meaning parent who has done nothing more outrageous than apply some necessary discipline gets “I HATE you! You're ruining my life!!” thrown at them by their offspring it must really really sting. I'm sure that part of the parenting experience (of which I have not partaken as yet!) is to develop the ability to shake this kind of thing off but still. It's got to hurt. Especially when you happen across a memoir such as this about parents that really were, in many ways, ruining their kids' lives – yet these kids seem to raise far fewer protests in this book than the average teenager would in a calendar month.

When I first started thinking about this book I was in two minds as to whether this memoir displays the immense resilience of children or the worrying enmeshment that often happens within dysfunctional families. When you've been dragged from pillar to post by your emotionally immature and responsibility-shirking mother and father, experienced neglect, witnessed violence and endured the most abject poverty, to come out as well-adjusted and normal as Jeannette Walls is no mean feat. From the outside, it seems that despite the occasional rays of warmth and love that provide light relief throughout what is undeniably a very grim tale, the behaviour of her parents is unforgivable. You have to wonder how on earth she has come through all of this and been able to write such a balanced view of her life. In the end, however, I decided that although the enmeshment is definitely there, it would be doing this book an immense injustice to focus on that rather than on the resilience of Jeannette and her siblings.

The second in a family of four kids, Jeannette was daughter to Rex and Rose Mary – both highly intelligent people who simply did not fit within regular society. Rex dreamed of being an entrepreneur, of building his glass castle – a solar heated mansion for his family, of striking it rich in the gold mines but his addiction to alcohol as well as his near complete failure to apply himself left those dreams in the dust. Rose Mary was a prolific artist who just could not see the point of domestic chores and the hard work of raising four children when she could be working on her next painting. During Jeannette's childhood they lived a nomadic existence, moving from place to place across the desert until they finally, incomprehensibly, settled down in her father's loathed hometown of Welch – a damp and by all accounts fairly dire small town in West Virginia in the vice-like grip of joblessness and poverty. This is where they remain for the majority of Jeannette's adolescence and where, I feel, the magic slowly drains out of her view of her parents, especially her father whom she had always idolised.

In an interview about this book, Jeannette points out that although some people may see the concept of the glass castle as just another of her father's drunken promises that was inevitably broken, you can also choose to see it as a hope for the future. It's all a matter of perspective. Despite this viewpoint being incredibly hopeful and uplifting, personally I can't buy into it. Her story made me very angry, frustrated me beyond belief and broke my heart. I despised her parents for their selfishness and the pain they had visited upon their own children – the best part of the whole story in my view was the fact that she and two of her siblings, Lori and Brian, banded together to help each other escape from their destitution and build a better life for themselves in New York. For me, the hopeful thing is that these kids got out and went on to flourish proving that nobody is necessarily defined by their circumstances or their past if they are given a chance to break free of it. I suspect that everyone who reads this will have their own reaction to it based on their life experiences which is what makes this book so worthy of picking up and reading.

This book probably wouldn't be a good choice if you're looking for for something light. It is heavy-going and for some people it will touch a raw nerve but above all it is an unforgettable tale of the strength of the human spirit. It's a book that will stay with me for a very long time.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise: Review

The Tower, the Zoo and, the Tortoise: A Novel
By Julia Stuart
Published by Doubleday
Published in 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-53328-7
(Originally published in Great Britain in paperback as Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo)

I own this copy which, incidentally, is a First American Edition. I wasn't paid for this review but owning a kind-of-first-edition makes up for that. Also it's September's book club book.

None of us know what life will hold for us. When we're young and invincible, we have no clue what curve balls life will throw at us. This was certainly true for Hebe and Balthazar Jones, whose once intense love for each other has been torn to shreds by the loss of their only son, Milo. Thrown apart by their grief, they mourn separately in the same dank tower within the Tower of London where Balthazar is a Beefeater (the official guardian of the Tower of London sort, not the steak-scoffing variety). Hebe is unable to comprehend her husband's apparent lack of grief for the son he had loved so dearly and the obsession he has harboured ever since that terrible day that Milo passed away with collecting various types of rainfall in Egyptian perfume bottles.

When Balthazar is asked to take charge of the relocation of animals that were gifts from various heads of state to HRH Queen Elizabeth on account of his owning the oldest tortoise in the world, he is initially reluctant. He already has enough trouble making it through each day as it is but takes on the responsibilities as he believes it will ensure he won't be fired for his recent appalling record with catching pickpockets. As time passes, he relearns his ability to love through his connection with the animals, including a bearded pig that was not supposed to be taken to the Tower, and the heart that had been frozen with grief starts to thaw.

The drama of at the Tower of London is not limited to the Joneses alone. Ruby Dore, landlady of the Rack and Ruin, the pub within the Tower walls has just discovered she has returned from a holiday to Psain with a little more baggage than she had hoped for. Meanwhile, Reverend Septimus Drew, who is madly in love with Ruby, is living out a secret life in his spare time between preaching and exorcising the various residential areas of the Towers. Outside of the Tower walls there is Valerie Jennings, a woman of 'considerable girth' who works alongside Hebe at the London Underground Lost and Found office, meticulously logging all found items and attempting to reconnect them with their owners. Pursuing her is the tattooed ticket inspector, Arthur Catnip, who only gets the nerve up to ask her out when he comes to the counter to find her stuck in the front end of a pantomime horse's costume.

This novel is a charming blend of mad-cap characters, their messy lives, British history, and a bit of romance. It's a book that will draw you in and create a world that you won't want to leave. I absolutely adored this book from beginning to end, even though I did sometimes find the descriptions a little heavy-handed or repetitive in parts (the phrase 'fulsome buttocks' should never be used more than once within a novel, it ruins its effectiveness). If you're looking for something that is a bit mad that's fun but still has emotional resonance then this is the book for you. It's a gem to rival the crown jewels themselves.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sunday Salon: 9/11 and its literature

Ground Zero
Image Source: Here
Ten years ago today I was dragged out of my bed by my mother. She was saying something about "You have to see this!" and "Oh my God!" Through the haze of my attempts to wake up, I saw on the television the footage of a plane flying into the side of a building and then, horrifyingly, its collapse with people still inside. Immediately, I was awake. All of the questions that everyone else who was seeing this for the first time came falling out of my mouth. I was rooted to the spot for the next half an hour taking all of the information in. 

I was in my first year of studying at university, a couple of months shy of my 19th birthday. My abiding memory of that day was sitting around in the quad with my friends, all of us trying to comprehend what had happened and what kind of effects it would have on our lives. We had a Statistics exam that evening. I remember that the majority of the class bombed and I always wondered if our lecturer realised why that probably was. 

Ten years later I'm still transfixed by the events of that day as post-9/11 literature is the focus of my thesis. I've read a raft of novels that I consider to be post-9/11 - that is, literature that directly represents the events of the day or the effects on society after the events. I'm more interested in reading novels that register the after-shocks as I always think that seeing what happens after is far more informative than the fiction that tries to re-create what was undeniably a terrible event. So since this is my "Special Topic" of interest, I thought I would create a post-9/11 reading list. To honour the memory of those who perished in the collapse of the towers, the attack on the Pentagon and in the flight that went down in Pennsylvania, I believe it is best to keep on thinking and keep on asking questions. 

Falling Man by Don DeLillo
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
The Zero by Jess Walter
Ghost Town by Patrick McGrath
Saturday by Ian McEwan
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I haven't read these yet but I hear they're worth a look - 
Terrorist by John Updike
Submission by Amy Waldman
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer.

Also, go over to The New Dork Review of Books for this thoughtful and interesting post about what we should expect from fiction about this subject. 

What is your favourite post-9/11 novel?

Friday 29 July 2011

Where does inspiration come from?

Divine inspiration
Image source: Lviv Polytechnic National University
I've read a couple of great posts lately on the subject of writing, one here at Books and Bowel Movements and another at The New Dork Review of Books and Greg from The New Dork Review's reply to my comment got me thinking about something. All my life I have always had this idea that to write a great work of fiction in any format, you need to have a story bursting out of you, something almost alien that consumes you and takes over the function of your hands as you frantically type away, creating a masterpiece. To be honest I have no idea why I think like this because I know, logically, that writing is work. You produce the first draft, then the second and get feedback and rework it and rework it until it's something that you're willing to release into the world. I do this all the time with my non-fiction writing so why have I got myself in such a twist about the fiction writing aspect? Is this idea that all great novels start out as a story begging to be told within the author just a myth? Who started this myth?

I was reviewing my archive of bookish podcasts while I was pondering this when I had a vague recollection of something I heard a few years back from Alice Walker so I went back and listened to it.
"I prepared by changing my life almost completely. I was living in New York City, I was an editor at Ms. Magazine, I was married... and I knew that I could not write this story which started coming to me in the actual voices of the people... I knew I couldn't write it in the city because of the tall buildings, the noise...  I also knew that I could not remain with my husband because the world that we had was charming and good but not large enough for these people and he would not have been able to understand them and he would not have been able to understand who I was to write this, so I got a divorce... we sold our house, eventually got my half of the money from the house, moved here. The people of the story, they were very real to me. They loved the beauty of San Francisco... a lot. They didn't like the earthquakes though so I knew then I had to take them out of the city to the countryside." 
Alice Walker, speaking about writing The Color Purple
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Alice Walker"
Released as a podcast 18 November 2008

Small wonder, listening to this, that I have this embedded idea when I heard such a highly respected author saying she was so inspired that she had to get divorced, quit her job and move cross-country! Then I wondered if I had heard this from other authors and found this from J K Rowling...
Sue Lawley (DID presenter): I've heard writers before, Joanne, say that stories come into their mind and demand to be written. Is that how it was with Harry?
J K Rowling: Absolutely. It was, yes. I was 25 when I had the idea for Harry and I had been writing, if you include all of the embarrassing teenaged rubbish, for years and years and I had never been so excited by an idea in my life. I'd abandoned two novels for adults prior to that, actually the second novel I was still writing when I had the idea for Harry. For six months I tried to write them both simultaneously but then Harry just took over completely.
J K Rowling speaking about writing Harry Potter
BBC Radio  4 "Desert Island Discs"
First released 5 November 2000

If we consider here what Alice Walker and J K Rowling have said, then it really does sound like a story moves in from some other place and takes over. It's the divine inspiration idea that's been around for centuries. It's a perfectly lovely idea, of course for those who want an easy explanation of how and why art of any kind is created and why it is that some art affects some people more deeply than others does. However, for those of us sat in front of a blank computer screen with only a cold cup of coffee to hand and a defiantly blinking cursor tormenting us, it's not much comfort. What are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike? Where does this inspiration come? New York city, like Alice Walker? On a delayed British Rail train, like J K Rowling? Personally, I couldn't think of two more diametrically opposed locations in terms of potential for inspiration. What do we do in the meantime? 

I like to take comfort from this quote from Khaled Hosseini. To me, this is a more realistic tale of how a great book came into being. It started off with an idea from the piece of news that the Taliban were going to ban kite-flying in Afghanistan, something which was personally significant to Hosseini since he had loved to do this when he was younger. From there, he said, it grew.
"So then I sat down, and I thought I would just write this whimsical story about kite-flying in Kabul... and of course, stories take a life of their own and gradually what started as this little kite story became a 25-page short story about this kind of complicated friendship between these two boys, this doomed friendship. And it became a story about cowardice and betrayal and honour and guilt and forgiveness and so on. And then the short story sat around for a couple of years until the March of 2001 when my wife discovered it and read it... and then I revisited the story and realised that even though it was really flawed it had a big heart and maybe the nucleus of what could become a really interesting piece of longer fiction. And that was the basis for the novel."
Khaled Hosseini, speaking about The Kite Runner
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Khaled Hosseini"
Released as a podcast  27 May 2008

From an idea to an abandoned short story to a hugely successful novel. It took was his wife's interest and enjoyment of the story for him to realise that this story was one that had massive potential, that 'big heart' despite all of the flaws that he could also see in it. 

I know that all stories have to come from somewhere, but I'm starting to think that they don't have to necessarily be that lightning strike of inspiration. Perhaps not everything we write is going to be that number one bestseller or Booker Prize winning story. Maybe we need to write a bunch of so-so stories before we can write the really good one. In the same way that you would never imagine that you'd go out and run a marathon with no prior training, maybe I should reconfigure my view to think of all writing as training for the 'big event', that hoped for and dreamed of published book. I mean, seriously. Even J K Rowling said that she'd been writing for 'years and years' before Harry came along and do you think that Alice Walker never wrote anything before The Color Purple? Exactly. I don't doubt that they really did experience that extraordinary 'boom' of inspiration but looking at Hosseini's story, it doesn't seem like it is as necessary as I once thought it was. Sure you need an idea, but that idea can just as easily germinate from a small seed as it can be transplanted into your brain. 

Looks like I just need to get myself into training for when that idea comes along. 

How about you? What do you think of the "story that just had to be written" idea?

Thursday 21 July 2011

Where is home?

The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.  ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Auckland City seen from the North Shore
Image Copyright: Kath Liu 2011

For me, this one quote perfectly sums up what it feels like to return to your country of origin, be it permanently or for a quick visit, after a period of living overseas. For me, it feels like something has grown and it no longer fits like it used to, like a favourite t-shirt you used to wear all the time that accidentally got shrunk in the wash. Of course, the process of change from being overseas is a lot slower and more subtle than an overnight laundry incident and you often won't even realise that it has happened until you go back for your first visit. The process of trying on your previous life for size, as it were.

When I'm asked where I'm from, it's a challenge to answer in absolutes. I was born in Cornwall, England but I did all of my teenaged growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. I was already a bit of a mutt before I moved to Taiwan but now I feel like I've morphed into something else entirely but goodness knows what that actually is. All I know is that when I went back home to NZ for a visit recently, I felt different. Stretched. Slightly misshapen. A little odd. There were the obvious things that happen that made me notice, like the fact that I forgot that in NZ you follow road traffic conventions and keep to the left on escalators (in Taipei it's the reverse and you stay to the right-hand side) and I was shocked and appalled by the cost of living and how it had risen since I had last been back - mind you I don't think you need to have left the country to feel like that when  inflation is 5-6% per annum and wage increases are 1-2% per annum.

But there were other things that made me feel weird, like after having had a couple of glasses of wine at the wedding I was there for, I found Mandarin phrases bubbling up through. I found myself nearly saying "為什麼?" (wèishéme?) instead of "Why?" and other strange linguistic anomalies. I found myself feeling unusually intimidated by hoodie-wearing youths even though I knew that they weren't at all dangerous. I found myself feeling like a stranger in a place where I used to be absolutely comfortable - feeling exactly the same way that I did two years ago when I first moved to Taiwan. I guess if I was going to be staying in NZ longer than I was you'd say I was experiencing reverse culture shock but since I was only there for a week, I'll just call it feeling out of place in a familiar environment. 

It's a fairly lonely experience too. There you are, feeling like a fish out of water and everyone else around you has no idea you're feeling like that. Why would they? You've come back home. It's natural for them to assume that you feel like you've just slotted straight back into your old life and everything feels comfortable and familiar.  So how was I supposed to tell anyone? If I responded to "I bet it feels good to be home!" with "Actually it feels really weird and I don't feel like I fit in here anymore..." then I run the risk of accidentally offending someone or making it sound like I wasn't enjoying the fact that I was back in NZ which I was, absolutely. Being back and seeing all of my dear friends and spending time with family was fabulous. The ability to shop in regular stores who carried my size was brilliant. Going to the supermarket and seeing more cheese than you could shake a stick at was lovely. Nothing was wrong with New Zealand, what was wrong was me.

Living overseas changes you, it has to - you have to adapt to a new environment, usually learn a new language and get used to all sorts of crazy things. I mean, this makes sense logically but the emotional reality of these changes can sometimes be harder to accept. Going back to NZ pointed out to me that I wasn't the same person who left in 2009 and that felt very strange. If I wasn't that person anymore then who was I? Where did I fit in? Where was home really at? There is something rather unsettling in not really knowing which country is your home but it's also kind of exciting because it opens up all sorts of possibilities. If I can count England, New Zealand and Taiwan as my 'homes' of various types then doesn't that mean that ultimately anywhere we choose to settle could be considered home? Life without boundaries can be terrifying but also freeing. Maybe that old t-shirt no longer fits but there are many more out there that will.

Have you ever had this experience of going back to a place you used to live in and feeling like a stranger? How did you deal with it?

Sunday 17 July 2011

Sunday Salon: Desert Island Books

As a kid, one of my favourite radio programmes was Desert Island Discs, a BBC Radio 4 production that has been running since 1942. The basic format is that a well-known guest is invited onto the show and asked to imagine that they will be stranded for an indefinite period on a desert island with 8 pieces of music, one book of their choice, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Bible or other relevant religious/philosophical work and one luxury item which must be inanimate and of no use to escaping from the island. In between explaining their music choices, the guests talk about their lives and since this programme is basically an institution, they've had just about everyone you can think of on there. Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that I could subscribe to the podcasts of current episodes AND access the archives all the way back to 1998.

Which got me thinking - how about the literary version? What if instead of music you had to choose books to take with you?

Book choice one: Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

This hardback book is a compilation of the first three Malory Towers books, one that I read many a time during my childhood. There was something magical to me about the escapism of boarding school stories. I loved being at school (the nerdiness started young) and thought that eating meals, being at school after the sun went down and then sleeping there with all of my friends would be fabulous. Now I'm a bit older and wiser I can see that boarding school would likely not have been all it was cracked up to be in my head but if I'm going to be stuck on a desert island, I figure escapism to a magical place of my childhood might be just what the doctor ordered.

Book choice two: Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (selected and edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi)

I'd always been one of those 'girls can do anything' kids and when I got to university and started studying for my Bachelor of Arts, I was exposed to a wealth of ideas about feminism. When I continued on to study Literature papers in my Grad Dip Arts (to make up for the fact that, oddly, I did no undergrad Lit papers in my BA) the interest continued and grew and I focused a lot on the literature of women. This book was a required text for one of my papers and one I really enjoyed for the fact that you could dip in and out of it and it always gave you something to think about. I know that if I'm going to be alone with nothing but trees to talk to for an indefinite period of time, I'll need something to keep me thinking to stave off the insanity!

Book choice three: Selected Poems of Anne Sexton (edited with intro from Diane Wood Middlebrook and Diana Hume George) 

Expanding on the point above, this book was also a required text. Sexton's poetry isn't exactly of the uplifting variety so it's more likely that I'll be reading it on the beach in the day time rather than by the camp fire at night but it's got a lot to it so will give me something to think about.

Book choice four: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Some books you can read and read and they never get old. For me, Wuthering Heights is one of those books and it's not because I wish that I could have a dark and moody lover named Heathcliff brooding over me. The main reason I love this book is the atmosphere, the stormy Yorkshire moors, the old stone houses and the creaking gates in the wind... *shiver*. Absolutely fantastic!

Book choice five: The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the birth of Modern China by Emma Pakula.

I'm noticing that a lot of my choices are non-fiction and/or educational. This one is all about the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek, the first President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Apparently she was something of a power-house and by all accounts, one helluva interesting lady so I thought why not take the time to learn something about the history and formation of my husband's country of origin from the perspective of one of the most powerful women at that time.

Gribbin Head Lighthouse
Image credit: Wild About Britain
Book choice six: Lighthouses by Jenny Linford

Growing up on the rugged and beautiful coastline of Cornwall means I have salt water running through my veins. I never feel more alive than when I'm standing on a cliff top, looking out over the ocean, preferably with a good strong breeze blowing through my hair. As a result, when I moved away from the Cornish coast to the more sedate (but still beautiful) coastline of Auckland, I became a little obsessed with lighthouses. My old office at Massey University was plastered with pictures of lighthouses, and since I worked in a Psych department there were of course more than a few Freudian explanations offered for this love of mine! Nothing Freudian about it, honest. I just find them evocative and beautiful and they remind me of romping along the cliff paths in St. Austell Bay towards Gribbin Head.

Book choice seven: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book was recommended to me by a friend but I haven't read it yet. I figure that if there is ever a time I will need to be consoled, it'll be when I'm stuck on a desert island.

Book choice eight: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My father read this to my younger brother and I when we were kids. I loved the book, I loved the movies and it's a massive book which means it will keep me occupied for a while. There's nothing like a bit of Mordor to distract from the fact you're stranded, right?

Luxury item: Unlimited supply of writing supplies.

What would some of your Desert Island book choices be? Luxury item?

Friday 15 July 2011

Expat Women: Confessions - Review

Expat Women: Confessions - 50 Answers to Your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad
By Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth
Published by Expat Women Enterprises Pty Ltd ATF Expat Women
Published in May, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0980823608

The Expat Women website ( is a website that aims to equip women living expatriate lifestyles with knowledge, resources and an online support network in the hope that this will enable them to live fulfilling and enjoyable lives at their various overseas locations. This book is a result of the compilation of fifty reader's real-life 'confessions' about their lives and the issues that typically plague those who live the expatriate lifestyle.

The book is split into six sections covering settling into a new country, questions of career and money, raising children abroad, relationship issues, other common issues associated with living abroad and of course the inevitable return home. Each question is given a positive and helpful response, focusing on plans of attack and solutions whilst still retaining a strong grounding in reality.

The questions covered range from the everyday struggles to the darker realities of life such as infidelity and teen suicide and although certainly not all of them will be relevant to all who read this book at one time, this seems to be an excellent resource to dip into on the occasion that you're feeling a little lost or in need of guidance. The most consistently made point in the whole of this book is need for a social connection. Going overseas to live may seem like a glamourous lifestyle to those we have left behind but in reality it can be isolating and scary, especially if you're living in a country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture. Meeting others who you can connect with and who can relate to your experiences is an essential part of settling into and living a meaningful existence in your new country which is one of the driving forces behind The Community Services Center - Taipei, were I work.

There is one issue that I had with this book, however. Despite its global reach of looking at the lives of women in loads of different countries, I felt like it was really focusing on one particular sort of expat woman, namely those who have moved abroad due to a corporate contract. Which isn't to say that this group is not worthy of focus but there are other women living lives overseas who don't fit this category. What about those who moved overseas to teach? What about those who are doing missionary work? What about those, like myself, who are 'foreign spouses'? What about overseas-born folks who have come back to their parent's home country to explore their cultural roots? Perhaps I'm asking too much for one book to be able to incorporate the views and experiences of such a diverse range of women but then again, aren't we all women who are expatriated even if we're not living what is commonly understood to be the 'expatriate lifestyle'? I think, in the spirit in which this book is written, perhaps the best solution based answer to this expat confession would be to suggest that there is room for a future book: Other Expat Women: Confessions Continued...

But despite the fact that one size doesn't fit all, there are plenty of people I know who will find this book a very useful addition to their bookshelf. Whether you're thinking about moving overseas, newly arrived or even been overseas for a while now this book will have something to offer. It doesn't matter where you are in your life, the main message of this book is that you can and will succeed and find happiness and that there are others out there who know exactly how you feel. 

Monday 11 July 2011

Amy Chua talks to the Guardian

I found this last night and thought you guys might find it interesting... Click here for the podcast. Having listened to it I'm not entirely convinced she's as 'self-deprecating' or 'humbled' as she claims... let me know what you think once you've had a listen!

Saturday 25 June 2011

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran: Review

Cleopatra's Daughter
By Michelle Moran
Published in 2010 (Reprint)
Published by Broadway
ISBN: 978-0307409133

I read this for book club, bought it myself and was not paid for my review. So, for the love of it, basically!

A couple of weeks ago, I gave myself two glorious evenings of dedicated reading. The TV was off, husband was away for work (in Bali, the lucky bugger!) and the dog was curled up next to me on the couch in front of the air-con unit. This book was the result. 

When Octavian, who later came to be known as Augustus, defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, he took their three children back with him to Rome. Sadly the youngest didn't make it, leaving only twins Selene and Alexander, the last of the Ptolemies. They both struggle to come to terms with their losses - parents, siblings, kingdoms, power, dignity - but the one who struggles the most is Selene, from whose perspective we are told the story. 

Selene was a funny character for me. She was really difficult to like a lot of the time and even though I could sympathise with her on having had a rough time, I just couldn't forgive her haughtiness and arrogance. Mind you - had I been the crown princess of Egypt, I may have been a bit up myself too. I found her brother and twin, Alexander, far more likeable. He seemed more willing to adapt and reach out to others and he showed Selene nearly boundless patience. 

This story tracks the twins as they move from childhood to adulthood, kept as guests within the household of Octavian. Despite Selene's strong desire to one day return triumphant to Egypt, they are forced to settle in to the rhythm of the life set out for them and get used to life in Rome. [This is the point I resist using the "when in Rome" joke.] They make friends with gorgeous Marcellus, the heir apparent to Octavian and the spoiled Julia, who much to Selene's chagrin, has been engaged to Marcellus since they were kids. This story line alone would probably have been plenty for this book but Moran has chosen to add the additional plot of the Red Eagle, a undercover rebel who opposes slavery and leaves posters around Rome inciting civilians to protest the injustices of the city. Who this rebel is provides additional intrigue along the way but I actually thought it ended up making the plot a bit unwieldy. 

This book was a nice quick and easy read that would suit a lazy day on the beach or curled up next to the fire (depending on the season). I enjoyed it well enough but it certainly didn't wow me. Good solid historical fiction. 

Do you think historical fiction is a good way to access the past? Or do you think that learning about the past through fiction risks clouding the truth?

Saturday 28 May 2011

Life in Taiwan: My experiences with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Luckily, this wasn't my batch...
Traditional Chinese medicine. What on earth is it, anyway? When I talk about Traditional Chinese medicine I am basically painting with really broad brush strokes and including all forms of traditional medicinal and therapeutic ways of treating illness and promoting wellness that have their origins within the Chinese culture. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to it from here as TCM. This includes foot massage, 'cupping', acupuncture, food therapy and herbal reductions and plenty of others, some of which I've tried, many of which I haven't.

My first brush with TCM came when I first moved in with a Taiwanese family in New Zealand. We were taking the much beloved family dog, Rifle, out for his evening walk and we'd got all of 300 metres up the road when I fell off the pavement and twisted my ankle. This was an injury I'd had a thousand times before when I played netball as a teenager. I knew the drill. Swelling, bruising, not being able to walk properly for a few days. Upon seeing my ankle, my host mother expressed sympathies and then produced a funky smelling green patch. I must have looked doubtful as she explained that this was a Chinese remedy, it was only herbal and wouldn't hurt me. Well heck, why not. I can try anything once, so I good-naturedly let her put it on all the while secretly thinking it wouldn't do a jot of good.

Brewing the good stuff...
The next morning I could walk. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a miracle healing but it worked a darn sight quicker than anything I had ever done to my ankle to fix it before. Two days later it was like nothing had happened. It was at that point that I started to think that maybe there was something to all of this... I decided to at least keep an open mind.

Seven years and plenty more experiences like this later, I went to see my first ever TCM doctor. My reasons for going were nothing spectacular: I'd been feeling less healthy than usual this year and had been far more prone to sickness, I was low on energy, had trouble concentrating and just felt like I could do with a boost. Art, Sancia, and myself all trundled along to a little old store in Muzha (木柵) an area of Taipei City. You could smell the herbs from 20 paces and hear my heartbeat from 30, but I took a deep breath and went on in. If truth be told, I was more worried about what he would say was wrong with me than about what sort of medicine he would make me drink. I mean, I knew I was pretty healthy but I'm not one to bail up to the doctor for an annual health exam. I only see a health professional when it's absolutely necessary. Who knew what was really going on in my body?

When our number was called I nervously sat down in front of the doctor. He looked old, maybe late 70's or early 80's but his skin was nothing short of radiant and he moved around with the ease of a 25 year old. He put three fingers on my wrist like he was taking my pulse and within a few seconds listed a number of things that were wrong with me, some of which I knew and some of which I was in denial about. I swapped wrists and more of the same. It was like he was in my head. This guy had never met me, knew nothing about me and had just told me things that he couldn't possibly have guessed at. It took longer for him to write up the prescription of which herbs and other dried goods I would have to take than it did to figure out what my problems were. To say I was in awe would have been a fairly accurate description.

After the doc had seen Sancia and Art, we waited outside for our prescriptions to be made up. There were four men behind the counter sifting through various drawers and clay pots, weighing out and dividing the various dried bits and pieces onto the seven paper sheets. There were dried roots, stuff that looked like bark, stuff that look like grass, various dried berries and dried cicada shells (that wasn't our prescription, thank goodness - I'm open-minded but not that open-minded). Once they had it all, they parceled it all up like they were wrapping fish and chips, sold us a kettle to brew it up in and gave us a bunch of candy to eat after drinking it to reduce the bitterness.

That was two week ago. I've now nearly finished my second round which should be the last one for a while. While writing this I have a mug of my 'morning brew' sitting next to me. I'm psyching myself up to drink it because I will not lie. That stuff tastes foul. It's black and it's bitter. There is nothing redeeming about its taste or appearance. I have to hold my nose and skull it, or I'll never get it down. Basically, it's exactly what good medicine should look and taste like. How am I feeling? So far, so good. For the first few days I felt terrible but now I'm in the second week, a lot seems to be improving. The idea of the medicine is to rebalance my body so I expected to not feel fantastic for the first few days but now I'm (apparently) coming into balance, I am starting to feel more energetic. At the end of this round (designed to unblock my qi - energy flows in the body - and rebalance my hormones) I will let you know exactly how much of an improvement I'm feeling.

Now, to drink this morning's brew... sigh.

Friday 20 May 2011

War and Peace Wednesdays: May 11th and 18th

As at May 18th, 2011

Pages read so far: 512 - Up to Book Two, Part 3, Chapter 8. 

Confidence level: 
3.5/5: I managed this week to get 50 pages done and at a good speed, so hopefully the pace will remain for the rest of the month so I can catch up. Interestingly, I've been wanting to read my book rather than listen to the audiobook version lately. I'm not sure why but I'll go with it.

Words I have had to look up: 
Nothing this fortnight.

"Life is not over at thirty after all!" Thank you Prince Andrei for that earth-shattering revelation! I can carry on knowing I have more than 2 years left! I do, of course, jest. The poor guy has been through such a time what with losing his wife and all the guilt he felt about that as well as losing his faith in humanity after his stint in the war that it's really great to see him perking up a bit. Well, a lot, actually. He's getting back into it and he's realising he has a whole lot more to live for. I guess this is something that a lot of us experience. Sometimes life can throw epic curve balls at you just can't see how on earth it will ever get any better. Thankfully, a lot of the time it does. I'm really pleased to see our Andy (the irreverent way I like to refer to Prince Andrei in my head) is pulling out of his black phase. Onwards and upwards!

As for dear old Pierre, don't we all know how he's feeling? New Year's Resolutions are made, and then promptly broken 7 weeks later. Exercise regimes are set in place and then slip off the radar. He's trying so hard, bless him, but old habits die hard and when it seems like the rest of the Brothers aren't walking the walk either... Well. I think the way his speech in Chapter Seven was shot down was particularly heart-breaking. I can see what he is saying and I feel his frustration - he believes in action not just empty words. He wants to see results, not just come to regular meetings and act like he's doing something good. He really is interested in doing the hard spiritual work of changing and improving himself but it seems like he's alone. I kind of know how he feels. There have been plenty of times before when I have got involved in something, started out all gung-ho but then got really discouraged because others were all kind of "Whatever man" about it all. He's being accused of being like the Illuminati (which, so far as I understand, have the idea of using the power of religious groups to manipulate secular power structures like the government) but I don't see it like that. He's thinking that they can use their combined powers as a force for good.

What do you think about Pierre's struggle with the apparent apathy of the other Freemasons? Do you think he's right or just a little over-invested?

Links to other people blogging about War and Peace:
The Book Ladys Blog
The Avid Reader's Musings
A Literary Odyssey
Kristi Loves Books
Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness
Jillian at A Room of One's Own
Kaye at The Road goes Ever Ever On (Thursdays with Tolstoy)
Tips on how to read WaP at The Blue Bookcase

Thursday 19 May 2011

And the winner is....

Green Congratulations
Congratulation Glitters : Forward This Picture

Leeswammes! Congratulations, I will be contacting you as soon as possible for your postal information.

My apologies to all for taking so long to announce the winner, I've been sick for the last week. More on that in the next post...

Monday 9 May 2011

Dewey - The small town library cat who touched the world: Review

Vicki Myron and Dewey
Source: USA Today
Dewey: The small town library cat who touched the world
By Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
Published by Grand Central Publishing
Published in 2008 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 9780446407410

I read and reviewed this book as part of a Bookcrossing bookring and I received no catnip for this review.

The way some people treat animals sometimes absolutely appalls me. Abandoned dogs left the starve in the mountains, kittens dumped on the side of the road - I get mad just thinking about it. But once in a while, a story comes along that helps restore your faith and reminds you that for every heartless [insert suitably snappy expletive here] that there is out that would hurt an animal, there are plenty more fantastic people who are giving their animals the best lives they possibly can.

I'd heard of Dewey a long time before I read this book, which is really saying something for a kitty. News had reached the shores of New Zealand, goodness knows how, that somewhere in rural America, a cat was bringing together a community and lighting up lives left right and centre. Luckily the true story of the cat lived up to the expectations that had built in my head. 

Source: Spencer Library
Normally, I'm a dog person. Not just a dog person but a Big Dog person. I've had a Golden Retriever, a Yellow Labrador, a cross breed terrier and two German Shepherds be a part of my life. The one smaller dog we had when I was a teenager was a Cocker Spaniel that thought he was a big dog, so the effect was kind of the same. But just because I'm a dog person doesn't mean I can't appreciate the feline species  and as far as cats go, Dewey is surely one of the shining examples. He was found deposited in a book drop box on one of the coldest nights of the year in Spencer, Iowa but after a good scrub and a bite to eat, he quickly set about winning the hearts and minds of the library staff who had found him. He came to be adopted as the official library cat and due to his big personality and charming ways, he became an international Cat Celebrity. 

As much as this is the story of Dewey, it's also the story of Dewey's Mom and Director of Spencer library, Vicki Myron, and his home, the town of Spencer, Iowa. The book reads like you're sitting across from Vicki in her kitchen, listening to her tell the story over a hot cup of coffee. You hear all about the hardships suffered by the town and wider area and also those suffered by Vicki and her family. It's like getting to know the family. And like every good family story, throughout this book, the message that you've just got to keep on trucking no matter what comes your way is loud and clear.

Basically, this book is a fun, heart-warming story filled with lovable characters of both the feline and human kind. It made a very good and welcome distraction from some of the heavier stuff I've been reading of late and despite the ending that had me reaching for the tissue box, it left me feeling good. If you're in the market for something that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy and you're an animal lover then I'd recommend you pick this one up. Enjoy!

Sunday 8 May 2011

Sunday Salon: Enid Blyton

This Sunday is Mother's Day here in Taiwan and it got me thinking about my reading childhood. I was a serious bookworm in my earlier years. I didn't mind being collected from school late because it meant extra time in the library and I regularly snuck a torch under the bedcovers to read 'just another chapter' before sleep overtook me. I read almost anything I could get my hands on but one of the authors who pretty well defined my childhood was Enid Blyton and since Sunday is all about the women who shaped our childhoods, this post is dedicated to her.

She was born on 11th August 1897 and passed away well before I was born on 28th November 1968. She was a prolific children's writer and enjoyed huge popular success. She did suffer some problems, namely the "Blyton Bans" where allegedly her books were removed from the children's section on the library and the BBC ban which I wrote about in an earlier post. The ban was apparently because she used a vocabulary that was thought to be too limited and presented a "too rosy" version of the world. Perhaps this is true, perhaps there aren't 'lashings of ginger beer' in real life and perhaps it's not possible to make a bed for the night out of heather and bracken on the moor but you know what? I don't care. Reading is escapism and as a kid, I wasn't interested in whether I could really do all of these things. I was far more interested in pretending that maybe, just maybe, it was possible.

I tore through all of the Famous Five series and the majority of the Secret Seven. My childhood best friend and I would spend hours holed up in her backyard, ducking behind the back wall whilst we surveilled the neighbours in the farmhouse across the field. Of course, they weren't doing anything suspicious but we keenly documented every movement in and around that household... that is, until dinner was served. I also absolutely loved the boarding house series she wrote: Malory Towers, St. Clare's and Whyteleafe, where The Naughtiest Girl was educated. Stories of midnight feasts and the crazy escapades they got up to were just the thing I wanted to read. I inhaled it all, start to finish and then read it all over again. These books sparked my imagination, made anything seem possible (hello, Magic Faraway Tree!) and provided the pure, simple escapism into a world where the worst problems could be overcome with the help of your 'chums', a loyal dog and some more ginger beer.

This magical world of Blyton was a pillar of my childhood and for this reason, on Mother's Day, I choose this literary icon to say a big THANK YOU to.

Which author played a part in your childhood?

Sunday 1 May 2011

Sunday Salon: Nostalgia and reading

Now there's some old books...
Image copyright: Kath Liu 2011
I don't know if it's a result of coming face to face with my long-lost past during The Big Trip or if it's just one of those things that comes around once in a while but right now I have a serious case of nostalgia. I've been looking up all of my favourite tunes from the 90's and enjoying a good little bop down memory lane. I've been singing along with Eternal, dancing around my living room to En Vogue and re-living the best of Tupac Shakur. For a bookish British girl, you might think that I have a very unexpected taste in music, but I'll bet you didn't know that Tupac was, according to one of his biographies  Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur by M. Dyson, a huge reader.

In any case, this attack of the nostalgic got me thinking about the books I had read and loved as a younger person. More specifically, books I had read and loved 10 or more years ago that I hadn't re-read. Would I still love them? Is it possible for the books we loved in our youth to ever going to stand up to us reading them again as adults?

I mean, I'm only 28 years old but already my perspectives have shifted significantly in the single decade it took to get me from only-just-adult to only-just-figuring-out-life. Goodness only knows what changes, lessons and wisdom will come in the next decade or two! So I wonder - are the books I loved then bound to be a little tired now? Or is good literature just plain good no matter how old you are?

I guess it depends on the books and to be really sure I'd have to go back and road test a few old favourites... but with the mountainous To Be Read pile staring at me balefully from my bookshelf, I should probably spend my time on discovering new favourites rather than trying to re-spark something that I may have already outgrown. Sometimes it's kind of like your first love - you look back with fond memories and sometimes you allow yourself to wonder 'what if...' but going back is rarely a good idea. It's better to keep it on the treasured memories shelf rather than let is slide into the what was I thinking bin.

Have you lost any happy memory books by re-reading them at a later stage? Or have you found something fresh and new in old favourites?

Me? I'm just happy re-living the musical moments of years gone by. Good tunes never get old!

Thursday 28 April 2011

Fight for the right to write: Supporting Judy Mays.

The school where Judy Mays teaches.
Image source: Here
Earlier today on Twitter thanks to @sleighanne, I caught wind of a ruckus in Snyder County, Pennsylvania. A 10th grade English teacher has been outed as a published romance novelist. A romance novelist, can you believe it?! The woman actually had the nerve to have a life of her own outside of the classroom! Detect the sarcasm yet? 

The poor woman has only been following her dream of being a published author and this is the treatment she gets. Publicly outed and shamed. Personally I found this so ridiculous that I wrote the below email to the WNEP website. I'm reproducing it here because it's a good summation of my feelings on this point.

Dear ----,

I am writing to you in support of Judy Buranich aka Judy Mays. I read and watched the piece about her on the WNEP website this afternoon and was horrified. Public humiliation for being a published author is what constitutes news? I am not from the area from which you are reporting. Heck, I'm not even from America but this is something that goes beyond local news and beyond borders.

Ms. Buranich surely did not cross any legal, ethical or moral boundaries by writing and publishing these books. She hasn't used student's identities or relationships for content, she hasn't written any novels that touched on inappropriate student/teacher relationships and I'm certain that she hasn't, as one neurotic mother suggested, been eyeing up any of her students in a sexual manner. Sex is a normal and regular part of life. Is writing about it really any worse than engaging in sexual acts? Are we really suggesting that Snyder County is a celibate area? Then where are all the children coming from?

Teachers are in a position of responsibility and they have great influence over the minds of our future generations, but they're also people. They are entitled to have lives and so long as they don't do anything illegal then I think it's nobody's business, frankly, what they do in those lives. Ms. Buranich has kept her teaching and her writing separate. The only reason that anyone knows about this is because a few people have assumed the role of moral police and decided that outing her as a, shock and horror, romance novelist is their duty.

Good teachers, those dedicated to educating kids, are becoming harder and harder to come by these days. If Ms. Buranich decides to quit the profession of teaching because of this incident then I think it will be a huge loss to her students. I think this article was a biased and sensationalistic attempt to grab media attention. I would hope that in the future more time could be taken to consider the human impact of your reporting.

Yours sincerely,


Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion and you may disagree with me on this point but once in a while, I like to take a stand. Judy Buranich has done nothing wrong. You may not like romance novels or erotic writing but confusing the content of her writing with her ability to be a good teacher is clearly flawed logic.

Tell me what you think.