Sunday 27 March 2011

Sunday Salon: Home and books

Home. Where is home? What is home? For a good deal of folks, this question is too obvious to even give much consideration to but for those of us who have chosen the expatriate life this can be a bit of a tricky one.

St Austell, ©2003, Myra Davey
I was born in Cornwall, England and lived the first (almost) thirteen years of my life there. I lived in the same town the whole time, went to school with pretty much the same people the whole time and had all of my extended family within shouting distance. It was comfortable. I loved Cornwall. I felt connected to the place that included but went beyond the ties of family and comfort and Cornish pasties. Even now, if I see a picture of a Cornish coastline I get a little lump in my throat - it's not only the people who were important it was also the land that I felt connected to in a way that's hard to really put into words.

Auckland's Sky Tower
© Kath Liu, 2008
Then, three months before my thirteenth birthday, life got flipped on its head and we moved to New Zealand. We spent the first few months wandering around, seeing where we would settle. This involved me going to three different schools within six months. Luckily, by the third school, my family had decided where we would be and I ended up staying at that school for five years. As soon as I knew we were staying there I was gripped by the desire to settle again, to grow myself the roots I no longer had. To grow a history with people - I had known all of my friends in Cornwall since I was seven years old, sometimes younger - became my primary objective. Here I wasn't sure yet where I belonged, whom I could call 'friend' and this left me feeling incredibly unmoored. I felt like a tiny boat, bobbing around in the sea with nothing to anchor me down. It didn't help that my parents were going through exactly the same thing as I was and were a touch pre-occupied with how they were dealing with settling in a new country to see how it was affecting me or my brother.

Soon enough though, I started to feel settled in New Zealand. I found connections and started to grow back those roots, little by little, into the soil of my new home. My confidence level was not what it was in Cornwall and so I shied away from clubs and school plays (something I had always been involved in before) and I retreated more into the world of books. Reading became a major source of comfort for me and even though what I was reading wasn't anything of literary note (Sweet Valley High, anyone?) it helped me navigate the treacherous waters of becoming a teenager in a new country. Without anyone to guide me on the intricacies of female interaction, I devoured this sort of book and took mental notes on what sort of things were expected and which sort of things were not. Reading almost became the replacement Aunties I no longer had access to (remember this was the late 90's and email and Skype and Facebook were not there to help me out!)

Me in front of Taipei 101
© Art Liu, 2008
Sixteen years and another move to a different country (Taiwan) after that I am finally going back to Cornwall. Ever since the day I left, I have not been back. I planned to on a couple of occasions but family circumstances held me back. Now, these circumstances no longer exist and I am returning to England.  I left as a 13 year old not knowing I would not return for such a long time, not realising I would never see some much loved family members ever again, unaware of the life and adventures that lay ahead of me. I return as a 28 year old, knowing what I've missed and what I have lost, but also what I have gained from being in NZ and Taiwan. It's going to be a very emotional trip but one I just cannot wait for.

So the concept of 'home' for me is a very fluid thing. It is the place I was born and spent my childhood, it is also where I grew up and became a woman and it is the place where I currently live. All of these vastly different places, Cornwall, New Zealand and Taiwan, are all 'home' to me. The 'why' and 'how' changes but the fact that they are all home doesn't. I feel a strong connection to each and every place. This makes me sound splintered but actually I feel enriched. There's something from everywhere that makes me who I am and I'm really grateful to have had the life I have and through it all, I have had books by my side, providing an escape, providing guidance and being at times the one thing I could rely on.

Where is 'home' for you and how have books helped you through some of life's challenging times?

Saturday 26 March 2011

Keeping my ear to the bookcase: Favourite book podcasts

Image credit here
A couple of years ago when I got an iPod and was introduced to the world of iTunes, I discovered this fantastic thing called podcasts. Of course they'd been around much longer before I came to know about them but this was an exciting new discovery for me. It was radio on demand! It was free! Excitedly, I typed in "books" into the search box and was astonished to find how many there were. I admit it. I went a little crazy and subscribed to thirty different podcasts forgetting of course that listening to podcasts was not my full time job and I had to sleep (terribly inconvenient) so after getting a tad overwhelmed I managed to trim it back to a few favourites. Here is a list of my top bookish listens:

BBC Radio 3: Arts and Ideas
Not exclusively about books per se but includes the interviews and reviews from all things artsy. Great for keeping up with global developments in the world of entertainment from a more academic point of view. Updates weekly.

BBC Radio 4: Books and Authors
What we all want: readers talking to the authors they love. This year they have interviewed Kim Edwards, Sebastian Faulks, Howard Jacobson and heaps more. Updates weekly.

Books on the Nightstand
Created and run by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness who are both book sellers and major book lovers, this podcast is an absolute gem. They give great recommendations of "Two books we can't wait for you to read" every week and in the most recent podcast, Ann interviewed Ian McEwan. *Squeal!!* Also, they organised the War and Peace read-a-long that I'm participating in. Updates weekly and also has a blog associated with it.

Guardian: The Digested Read with John Crace
Hilarious podcast where John Crace reads the condensed version of well known books, including Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, The Protrait of the Artists as a Young Man by James Joyce and Train Spotting by Irvine Welsh. It's an eclectic collection! Irreverent, funny and good for a change of pace. Updates twice a week.

BBC World Service: Global Arts and Entertainment Podcast
Podcast about books, plays, films, art exhibitions and everything else related to the Arts from all across the globe. Fantastic for keeping abreast of things happening across the world, especially books that may not have come across your radar otherwise. Updates weekly.

The Guardian Books Podcast
When it comes to the Guardian Books Podcast I'm such a fangirl. Basically, I want to be Claire Armistead and Sarah Crowne. They have news and interviews about everything bookish and are great to listen to for updates on literary prizes, especially the Man Booker prize. Recent episodes I enjoyed were "Heroines and feminists", "Memory and truth" and "Writing and illness". Brilliant.

BBC World Service: World Book Club
The ultimate book club. Every month the author of a nominated book is invited in to answer questions put to them by the studio audience and selected others - you can email or phone in your question for the author. They have a great selection of authors: Barbara Kingsolver, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Andrea Levy, Kiran Desai, Zadie Smith, Alice Walker and so many more. I literally hang out for each new episode. Updates monthly.

Do you listen to any books podcasts? Which are your favourites?

Sunday 13 March 2011

Sunday Salon: Thinking of Japan

It's only been two weeks since I posted about the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch and now here I am again, glued to the television set, looking on in horror as another country is laid low by mother nature's power. Last time it was my home country, this time it is the home country of my sister-in-law. Luckily, all of her family and all of her friends are accounted for and safe, there were a few tense hours when she wasn't able to reach a friend of hers who lives near one of the nuclear power plants that has been having issues but as luck would have it she was in another part of Japan entirely and was fine.

Screen capture of the status update
that alerted me to the news.
The thing that struck me about this quake/tsunami (besides the obvious distress and devastation) was how I found out about it. I was having a real failure of a study day on Friday. My brain was stuck in neutral and no amount of coffee or cajoling was going to change that. I gave up and checked Facebook to see if one of my friends had played his move on Scrabble. In my news feed I saw another friend post "Dang big earthquake in Japan". I wasn't sure if he was talking about the other quakes they had had in the last couple of days so I googled it. Sure enough, there it was - breaking news. The earthquake happened at 2.46pm (Tokyo time) and he put an update about it on Facebook at 3.26pm (Tokyo time), only forty minutes later. The immediacy of the transfer of information is just astonishing but is becoming more and more common.

After calling my sister-in-law to make she knew and could check on her family and friends, I turned on the BBC World Service. It was already showing coverage of the quake and that's where I learned that it wasn't just an earthquake but a terrible tsunami was in progress. Within the first few minutes I was watching they upgraded it from a 7.6 to an 8.4 to an 8.9 on the richter scale and the phrase "Super Quake" and "The Big One" started being thrown around. Forget studying. I spent the rest of the afternoon glued to the news footage, a constant onslaught of horrific images and facts that were hard to absorb and truly comprehend. My sister-in-law came over for dinner that night and we spent a while longer in front of the news until we both got to saturation point and agreed to turn it off and watch something light-hearted for a mental break. I've been rationing my consumption of it ever since. Of course I care but I don't think it is necessarily wise or helpful to sit through looped repetitive coverage of the same thing over and over and over. I know it's what a lot of people like to do when there is a big event like this but I don't.

Pictures of the devastation
Image credit: BBC
I have to say though, through it all my admiration for the Japanese people has only grown. There was one piece of footage within a supermarket when the quake was happening and the store workers were trying to hold up the shelves to make sure they didn't collapse and hurt anyone. That kind of captured it for me, really. The sense of the greater good and pulling together that is sometimes somewhat lacking in other societies was so good to see. The BBC were interviewing a psychologist at one point and he too was commenting on the really pro-social behaviours that everyone seemed to be displaying. Even in the face of serious danger and personal risk. I'm impressed.

If you're wondering how to help, there are a bunch of international aid agencies that have sprung into action. I got this link from a blog post on the same subject by Eileen over at Sincerely, Eileen which seems to be mainly for those residing in America but the same agencies will likely have branches wherever you're living so make sure you check in with The Red Cross, Save the Children and places like that.

Just in case I missed the lesson from Christchurch (I didn't) this only reinforced the concept that life is unpredictable and not to be taken for granted. I plan on switching off the TV and logging off the internet a bit more and spending even more time reading, playing with my dog and hugging my husband. I sincerely hope that my life remains normal and uninterrupted by this kind of disaster and I don't plan on living a life where I keep looking over my shoulder - I just want to make sure mentally I'm here, in my life, enjoying the many blessings I have.

My thoughts are with you Japan, and with everyone all over the world who is suffering the effects of natural or man-made disasters.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Some of my favourite sentences: Part VII

And though the professional jargon didn't desert him - it's second nature - his prose accumulated awkwardly. Individual words brought to mind unwieldy objects - bicycles, deckchairs, coat hangers - strewn across his path. He composed a sentence in his head, then lost it on the page, or typed himself into a grammatical cul-de-sac and had to sweat his way out.
From Saturday 
Ian McEwan
page 11

Not only is this sentence wonderfully evocative, it captures how I feel on a bad thesis writing day. Sometimes it flows, other times it's an uphill battle. Just got to push through the pain!!

Thursday 10 March 2011

Stuff that's tickled me recently... (4)

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved Enid Blyton books. I read basically all of them, some of them multiple times. So imagine my intrigue and excitement when I saw this article on an unknown Enid Blyon novel that that has been discovered! One more going on the TBR pile...

I found this through a fellow bookworm friend on Facebook. There are two posts, one about why it is better to date an illiterate girl and the other on why it is a good idea to date a girl who reads. I think we'll all be able to guess which post I agree with the most!! I do wonder what on earth happened to the author of the "Date an Illiterate Girl" post though. He sounds awfully upset at us bookish types...

Borders store in Auckland
Image credit here
Sadly it looks like the closure of Borders is going to strike a little closer to home than I'd hoped, with 38 stores closing in Australia. The word is at this stage that the Borders and Whitcoulls stores in little ol' New Zealand are safe, which is good but still. Not cool.

Finally, this was a fun article in honour of World Book night in the UK. The Guardian asks a bunch of fantastic authors which books they give as gifts and which ones they loved the best as presents. I think the coolest book I ever got was a recipe book in which each recipe was written in the style of a particular author, including Jane Austen. It was brilliant.

So what do you think happened to the person writing about not dating a bookish girl? Ideas, speculations and wild stories welcomed....

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Snow by Orhan Pamuk: Review

By Orhan Pamuk
Translated into English by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International
Published in 2005
ISBN: 0-375-70686-0

I read this book as part of an international bookcrossing ray and was not paid for this review.

This book took me a long time to get through. It was like walking along a street covered in snow - beautiful, enchanting, fraught, slow going and hard work all at once. It was one of those books that demanded time and attention, not something that could be quickly read and put aside. It was determined to tell me the story, sit me firmly down in the tea houses of Kars, lean in uncomfortably close and make sure I heard every single word. And I did, but at the end of it I have this horrible grasping feeling that I haven't managed to fully understand the effect of it all...

Kerim Alakuşoğlu, or Ka as he is known throughout the majority of the novel, is a Turkish-born poet who has been in political exile in Frankfurt, Germany for the last 12 years. He has come to the city of Kars in Turkey investigate the suicides of a few members of a group of Muslim girls who are known as the Head Scarf Girls on account of their insistence that they be able to wear head scarves in accordance to their religious beliefs. The reason for their suicides is unclear - some claim it is because they are being banned from education unless they remove their head scarves, others say it is because of lost love affairs. One thing is clear though: these girls are falling between the cracks of male rhetoric. For all the speculation, these girls remain in death as they were in life, without a voice that can be clearly heard. 

Despite this being his primary declared motive for coming to Kars, Ka also has an ulterior motive - to win the heart of his ex-classmate İpek whom he has heard is now divorced. He arrives in Kars in the midst of a terrible snowstorm that blocks the roads and effectively isolates the city from the restof the world. What plays out is one part political intrigue mixed with two parts ugliness of human nature sprinkled liberally with hope beyond reason. 

The most striking thing was contrasting of the "West" with Islam and what happens when one gets caught in the middle ground. This issue sure isn't a new one but has been a hot button topic for the last decade since September 11th. Turkey is an interesting place as it is often referred to the place where the West meets East. Throughout the novel the tug-o-war between the two is clearly felt as one tries to dominate the other... or more specifically, the ways of the West try to come in and modernise and update the 'backward' ideas of the East/Islam. This is an idea I've long been uncomfortable with, the idea that we in the West have got it all sorted and the rest of the world should sit up and listen and adopt our ideas. Sure, we have some good ideas but not all concepts are universally applicable. Not everyone wants what we have. Who is anyone to assume that changing years of established culture, thinking and education is necessarily a good thing? All of these questions are far too big for just one blog post and my intention isn't to answer them anyway. My point is that this novel looks into these ideas and gives everyone pause for thought, which is one of the best things any novel can do: take on the big issues and force the reader to re-evaluate their own position. 

If you're feeling in the mood for a great read that will challenge you mentally and politically and you have some time to dedicate to it, this is definitely a great book. It's one of those books I will still be thinking about in years to come. 

Have you read a book recently that challenged you politically? What was it and how did it challenge you? 

Monday 7 March 2011

Some of my favourite sentences: Part VI

...and I was not immune to the power of that shimmering fiction that any citizen of an oppressive and aggressively nationalistic country will understand only too well: the magical unity conjured by the word we.
From Snow
Orhan Pamuk
page 393 

Sunday 6 March 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading roundup

This Sunday was a bit of a washout to say the least. It was the one day where hubby was home between week long trips away and I spent most of it asleep on the couch, thanks to the flu virus I'm still doing battle with. I'm now writing this on Monday night, feeling much improved it has to be said.

Reading has been slow going around these parts lately, mainly due to my reading War and Peace AND Snow by Orhan Pamuk concurrently, both hefty novels of serious literary content. I've just this very instant finished Snow and I'm desperately wondering if I have anything intelligent to say about it. I think it will take a few more days of percolations through the old grey matter before I can commit to an opinion. One thing I can say is that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a very challenging read but one that leaves your brain feeling good, like it's just done a vigorous workout at the gym. It taught me things that I hadn't known previously, like a lot of Turks migrate to Germany (I still want to find out why) and did so in a language engaging and ethereal. It's a serious book but I totally recommend it if you're a fan of literature.

Next up, I have The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill in my sights, the first for my own pleasure and the second for April's Book Club. Hopefully I can get some pace back into my reading again with these two, for no other reason than to make sure I can get around to reading all of the amazing books I've come across lately. Hopefully the one positive of the hubby being away is that the couch will be exclusively mine for a week and the PlayStation will be off which makes for good reading conditions.

I hope everyone else had a a healthier Sunday than I did! What are you planning on reading next?

Tuesday 1 March 2011

I'm not a digital hater, I just prefer printed.

E-Book on an iPad
Credit Here
When e-books and digital readers first came out I was horrified. Who on earth would trade in a trusty paperback for a computer screen? How are you supposed to get comfortable in front of a computer? And what about bookstores and libraries? Are my days of spending hours drifting happily between stacks of books, running my hands across the spines of volumes of untold secrets and knowledge on their way out? Panic rose up and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I imagined this world without printed books. It was not a pretty vision.

Luckily this was all a bit of a wild overreaction but not without cause, it must be said. The way some folks were talking this nightmare vision I had seemed imminent. But just like the television did not kill off radio and internet has not made everyone unsocial hermits who sit at home all day in their underpants and have no idea how to interact with each other, digital readers aren't going to replace printed books. It has merely added a new, convenient and lightweight way to read - one with a multitude of benefits, for sure.

Being 28, I'm not quite a digital native but was a young enough digital migrant so that living with and using technology seems like second nature. So why haven't I run out and bought myself some kind of digital reader yet? Surely it seems like the next logical step but truthfully I have zero desire to have one and today it finally dawned on me while I was reading this blog post on Accidental Moments this morning why this is. It's not just the act of reading words that form a narrative that I love about books. It's the whole experience of it.

My bookshelves
Photo by Kath Liu
My book experience starts, ideally, in a good bookstore. Quite often I have a mental list of books I want to buy as well as a sub-list of "If I find them that'd be nice" books. But I'm not really there just to buy a product and get out. It's not the purchase, it's the browsing. The smell of the pages of new books. The muted silence punctuated only by the sound of a page being turned or a book being slotted back into a shelf. The feeling of being surrounded by one of the things I love most in the world. I swear that if heaven is your happy place, my heaven is going to be an immense bookstore with a cosy coffee shop with massive sofas overlooking the ocean.

Once the book comes home with me, it's time to find it a place on my bookshelves. I don't have a massive collection of books as my bookshelf space is necessarily limited by the fact that I live in an apartment in Taiwan but with a bit of 'creative stacking' I've managed thus far. I love the way my bookshelves look, stuffed full of all of the different coloured spines. It looks inviting and friendly. It makes me happy looking at them. It's nothing impressive but it's my own little library.

Which brings me to my favourite part of the experience: sharing books. On average about 7 of my books can at any time be found floating around various locations in Taiwan, being read and enjoyed by other people. It's one of the best feelings to recommend a book to someone and have them absolutely love it. The love of sharing reading experiences is why I love Bookcrossing, book clubs and book blogging so much. Passing a much-loved book around to be enjoyed by others feels like sharing a slice of happiness. You just can't do that with a book downloaded to a digital reader unless you're willing to surrender your reader to someone for a space of time.... not something people are typically willing to do, understandably!

Me, reading.
Photo by Kath Liu
So aside from the fact that I don't think there's anything quite like curling up on the couch with a hot cup of tea, a biscuit or four and a trusty paperback, it's not only the actual reading of a book that makes me prefer the printed book to the digital books. From bookstore to shelf to my lap to someone else's and back again - it's the love of this whole process that makes me choose printed every time. Call me old-fashioned if you like. It's just my personal preference.

Which do you prefer? Printed or digital? Why? Does it change according to situation? Let me know!