Sunday 29 January 2012

Sunday Salon: Making peace with Kindle

The Kindle... The end of all real books???!!
"You kids with e-readers! Get off my lawn!"

That's basically what my 2009 post about the digital revolution in reading sounded like. I was the crochety old lady who was more than happy with her good old-fashioned paper books, thank you very much. All this gumph about new-fangled devices for reading, I huffed. I had no need for such shenanigans.... Did I?

By early 2011, I had softened considerably. It wasn't that I was against e-readers you see, I just preferred the entire reading experience. I'm one of those people who unashamedly sniffs books. I buy notebooks when I have no need for them. I like the way paper feels between my fingers. The clinical diagnosis, were I to get one, would likely be Severe Paperphilia. A diagnosis I embrace wholeheartedly - but the question that kept nagging in the back of my mind was, did my love affair with paper necessarily have to be so tightly linked to my love of the written word?

This question was answered at the end of last year, when my beloved husband bought me an iPad for Christmas. This gift came at a time in my life where reading for pleasure had become nearly non-existent due to the required reading necessary for the thesis which had taken up nearly all of my time and severely depleted my reading mojo. It was also a matter of timing - when I was thesis-free (that is, out of my house) and had the mental space for reading I was typically on some form of public transport or at a loose end somewhere. I had fallen out of the habit of carrying a book with me in my bag, for some reason but now, the iPad would be with me pretty much all the time.

Casually, I downloaded the Kindle App. I looked up. Checked behind me. No-one was screaming. I didn't hear any bookstores bursting into flames in the near vicinity. Excellent. Now, to find something to read. I downloaded Book of Mercy - an appropriate title, given my feelings about this whole foray into digital reading.

It was brilliant - not just the book but the whole experience. From click-to-buy to ready-to-read took all of 10 seconds. This is no small thing when, living where I do, the acquisition of books is not an easy task. The closest bookstore with a reasonably decent selection of English language books is a 15 minute bus ride away from my home and the one with the best selection is over an hour away by bus in Taipei. Ordering books online is easy but means waiting for two or more weeks for the books to arrive. Given this, I'm sure you can see why the immediacy of this appeals so much!

My swagload of real books (Image credit: Kath Liu)
Aside from that, the thing I worried about the most was the reading experience. Would it feel cold? Would it be uncomfortable holding an electronic device in my hands rather than a book? It certainly wasn't the same, but there were a couple of unexpected benefits, including the dictionary search function which helped me out on a few occasions as I read Game of Thrones. Highlight a word and its definition helpfully appears at the bottom of the screen. Further, I could add notes or highlight without feeling like I was committing the carnal sin of writing on a book. In fact, the only major downside was the constant distractions from email, Facebook and Twitter notifications. When you're deep into a dramatic moment, the last thing you need to know is that Bob Jones "Liked" your photograph. Easy solution: disconnect from the internet.

So there it is. Who knew. The Digital Dissenter has been turned and having access to e-books has shattered my reading slump. I have embraced the positives of this new way of reading and ceased worrying about my beloved physical book - I reckon those babies are going to be around in this world for a lot longer than I will, and I ain't planning on going anywhere for a good while yet.

And just to make sure, I bought myself a swagload of real books - and delightedly sniffed each and every one of them. Bliss.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Sunday Salon: The secret shame of unfinished books

It's confession time. In the last few years since I have had a full workload of both thesis and editing/writing work, I have been a serial non-completer of books. Not bad books. Not because I didn't like them. Not because they were unworthy. Purely because I would get distracted, put it aside, then forget which book I was actually working on and so pick up another. In this fashion, I have left a trail of many partially read books in my wake and quite frankly, I think it's time I put a stop to it.

Just as an aside, I have completed plenty of books during this time also - don't get me wrong. I do have at least enough attention span to complete most of the books I set out to read. But still. There is a noticeable issue here that I feel the need to address. The first step is admitting I have a problem.

Hi, my name is Kath and I'm a serial non-completer.

The next step is to map out a plan of recovery. Below is a list of the seven previously abandoned books I will complete during the year of 2012. I will complete these books despite the myriad shiny new books that come my way, beckoning invitingly. I will complete them despite having to read others for Book Club. I will complete them because they deserve it - they're damn good books and I was enjoying them until... well you know.

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
2. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
5. Possession by A.S. Byatt
6. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Has anyone else had this problem? I'll bet no-one has. I know my audience - the dedication and reading pace of the book blogging community impresses me no end! But if you're out there, fellow non-completer, speak up and join me on the Quest of Completion for 2012. [Edit: looks like I'm not alone! Jillian over at A Room of One's Own has set up a challenge specifically to deal with this problem. Trot on over there and join in!]

Saturday 7 January 2012

The Dirty Parts of the Bible: Review

The Dirty Parts of the Bible
By Sam Torode
Published by CreateSpace
Published in March 23, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1450567633

I purchased this book myself. As an ebook. Again. I know!

Bad: Your parents have a massive row one night which leads to your father getting fantastically drunk and crashing his car into the side of the local church. He is thrown clear but a bird poops on his face whilst he is passed out leaving him blinded.

Worse: Your father is also the Pastor of that church.

Tobias Henry is the only child of an evangelical Baptist pastor father and long suffering mother living in Remus, Michigan. Although he has been raised in the church he has always had questions about the apparent contradictions within the Bible. His father is of the Bible as a literal document of Fact school of thought who (before his extraordinary fall from grace) preached that sex was vile and sinful and that alcohol is temptation from the Devil. How come then, Tobias wonders, are there all these references in the Bible to turning water into wine and some passages that talk of breasts? Having been involved in the Baptist church for a couple of years when I was a teenager, these are questions echo ones I also had, although I was far less concerned than Tobias about the sexual aspects of the Good Book! In the end, it was partially the failure to find answers that satisfied me that was responsible for me deciding that formal religion wasn't a good fit for me.

With these questions in his mind and a need to find a way to support his family now that his father had been thrown out of the the ministry pushing him along, Tobias sets off to Texas. His father has told him of an abandoned well on his family's farm where he hid some money many years before. Thus commences a journey of discovery and learning, guided by the unlikely character of Craw, a homeless man whom Tobias befriends along the way.

What I really connected to within this story was Craw's take on the Bible. He claims that taking the Bible literally is to miss its point entirely, that the meanings of the stories within the Bible are layered within, only found after some digging and thought. This whole idea reminded me of a discussion I had with one of my oldest NZ friends when she visited me here in Taiwan recently about Christianity. Her take is that it is not about judgement or trying to be perfect, rather it is about Grace and faith that what you believe in will ultimately be your salvation. This is an explanation which really struck a chord with me and one I wished far more people shared.

This book is a quick and fun read whilst also giving you something to chew over once you reach the final page. It's a classic coming of age tale with a twist of mysticism with a dash of romance thrown in. If you're looking for a light read with a bit of substance to it, this is a good pick.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Endings and beginnings...

What happens when you chain yourself to your desk for a whole month in a desperate attempt to get your thesis written? Well, a thesis, apparently. That and a lot of coffee drinking, which of course aided the cause. I have completed the thirty one days of concentrated writing which I dubbed Thesis Month with three chapters (an introduction, one on DeLillo's Falling Man and one on Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist) which total around 22,000 words, 16,000 of which were written in the last month alone. I still have one more chapter (on McEwan's Saturday) plus a conclusion and all of the suggested revisions from my supervisors to write over the next 20 days but the end is in sight and it looks like it is going to be possible.

This thesis will be, by far, the longest single piece of writing I have ever done. Normally I churn out blog posts or articles that are 1,200 words in length without too much difficulty but despite my love of writing, there has always been this weird mental barrier in my head when it comes to writing anything very much longer. Especially something with chapters. Locking myself away for a month has made me realise, though, that what all of the best writers have said is true: Writing is work and you just have to keep showing up at your desk every day until you get it done. Previously I had tended to be one of those "write when inspiration hits" types which, you can imagine really doesn't work so well when there are strict deadlines and academic penalties involved. Anyway, two more months and this thing will be submitted and I will be free of tertiary study for the first time in 12 years! The possibilities of what I will do with the extra time are endless including reading what I want, whenever I want, purely for the hell of it. Heaven is just around the corner.

In other news, I have been given an exciting new job. The place where I work, The Community Services Center in Taipei, has an English language lifestyle magazine aimed at the international community living in Taipei and beyond. Recently, the editor who had been doing a fabulous job of looking after this magazine decided that she was going to step down and to my absolute joy my boss asked me if I would like to consider doing it. Of course I accepted, joyfully and with many fist-pumps. I have just started work on my first issue due out in February. Yet another reason to get this thesis done and dusted so I can focus my attentions on this new project, also known as My Dream Job.

Once I have got the thesis out of the way I will be spending some time thinking about the direction I want to take this blog in and being more committed to writing it on a regular basis. I have been having a few thoughts about what kinds of books I want to spend my time reading and also thoughts about how much Taiwan I want to include here. But I want to finalise one commitment before I take on another to ensure that both get the love and attention they need. It's almost like I can't really and truly celebrate the new year until I finish the thesis because I can't make new goals and resolutions until I have. But that's OK - it just gives me another reason to pop a cork on a bottle of something a bit special at the end of the February!

I hope you're all well and have had a wonderful Festive Season with your loved ones and that 2012 will be a fantastic year for you. Also I want to thank you for bearing with me during this period of blogging silence - I even gained a few new followers which I am most grateful for. Happy New Year!

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Book of Mercy: Review

Book of Mercy
By Sherry Roberts
Published in 2011
Published by Osmyrrah Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-9638880-5-1

I purchased this book myself - as an e-book. Cue gasps of horror from those acquainted with my previous digital resistance.

I don't know what this world is coming to. What are the kids thinking? It never used to be like that when I was their age. We were different. More respectful. The youth of today will be the ruin of this place. Have you heard the lyrics of the songs they listen to? Seen the content of the games they play? Someone ought to do something about it....

Thus starts an idea which is skirting into the very dangerous territory of censorship. It seems to me that this concerned hand-wringing that people do about 'the youth of today' is perpetual. People were saying it about us when I was younger, before that they were saying it about my parents generation, and the generation before that. Worse still, now people my age are starting to say it to me about 'kids these days' and look shocked when I flat out disagree. The problem with this world is not aged between 12 and 22, does not attend high school and does not wear hooded sweatshirts and baggy trousers. The major issues within our societies are caused by much older and better dressed forces. But the hand-wringing continues and ideas of what sorts of materials are appropriate for the eyes and ears of the young abound.

Irene Crump is one such hand-wringer, but she's the well-dressed, powerful sort. The most dangerous sort, in other words. She is the Head of the Mercy Study Club, a group of affluent women who meet to engage in educated discussion and participate in fund-raising activities for their community in Mercy, North Carolina. She takes it upon herself to produce a list of books that can be found in the local high school library that she considers 'filthy' and demands that they are removed. Books that contain such things as witchcraft (Harry Potter), profane language like 'hell' or 'damn', teen sexuality (Judy Blume's books) or allegedly encourage disobedient behaviour. She uses her connections and gets them banned. What she hadn't counted on, however, was being publicly opposed by the feisty Antigone.

Antigone is an entrepreneur, has a way with animals, takes in waifs and strays of all species including human, and has a habit of taking off on binge drives. She is also dyslexic, meaning her relationship with the written word in her life has been understandably fraught, however when she hears about Irene's little scheme she refuses to let it stand. Books, she argues, are knowledge and being locked out from them as she has been for most of her life, is something she wouldn't wish on anyone.

What ensues is a battle of both willpower and political power - the right to freedom of speech versus the right to protect the minds of the young from harmful materials. While I certainly agree there are limits on what children should be exposed to, the definition of what is harmful is a tricky one and it's inevitably tied up with politics and conservatism. I really think that people over-estimate the ill-effects of listening to songs with swearing in them, or knowing about sex at a young age. I grew up listening to all sorts and reading all sorts. One of my favourite songs when I was 11 years old was Deep by East 17 and it was entirely about sex - although I didn't know it at the time. Goodness only knows what anyone thought when they heard me tunelessly singing lyrics like "Yeah I'll butter your toast/ If you lick my knife". I haven't ended up a pervert nor did I let anyone 'butter my toast' until a much older age. I read my first sex scene when I was around 13 I think, entirely by accident. I picked a book that belonged to my mother off the book shelves one summer holiday and started reading... Nothing terribly explicit, my mother certainly wasn't one who enjoyed Mills and Boon, but enough to give a wide-eyed girl on the verge of adulthood a bit of an education. Again, seems I haven't come out any worse for it.

This book has fun characters, a good plot line and it moves at a pretty snappy pace. Overall, it was an incredibly enjoyable read which I was surprised about, to be honest, given that the listing price on Amazon was US$0.99 (it has since returned to its regular price of US$5.75) and that I had heard nothing about it. It was refreshing to prove my inner book snob wrong and find a cheap, unknown digital book that had me enthralled until the very last page. It wasn't high literature but I didn't want it to be. It was a great escape into a good story which is ultimately what reading should be all about.