Category Archives: Reading

New Year spiel on e-reading

It must be part of the New Year dearth of news, but I seem to have read a couple of articles recently about e-reading.  No, not the flogged-horse “Is Print Dead?” article.  The ones I’m thinking about are not so much about the effect of screen reading on the reader,  but more about the way that screen reading has  changed the writing itself, and may continue to do so in the future.

Off on a bit of a tangent was an article from The Conversation website called Will TV series go the way of Charles Dickens?  Michelle Smith from Deakin University turns back to the serialized form of nineteenth century British fiction which was published chapter by chapter, with a cliff-hanger at the end of each instalment to ensure that the reader purchased the next issue.  Television series used to be like this, too, she argues – until boxed sets and internet streaming means that viewers can gorge on  a whole season (and even multiple seasons) at one or more (lengthy) sessions.  She wonders if, just as the serialized periodical-versions of 19th century books were condensed and the cliff-hangers removed once they were published in one volume:

We can only speculate on the future of television now that traditional methods of broadcast have shifted so dramatically. Yet it is likely that these changes in how we consume television will have some effect on the content we watch in the same way as shifting patterns of print publication altered the very nature of popular fiction in the 19th century.

Related to this, on the same Conversation website, is another article entitled A good year for screen readers: notable ebooks of 2013.  Zoe Sadokierski from UTS nominated three ebooks that have used the digital format to do something that print could not.  The first, The Silent History was first published in serialized form, one chapter a day, just as the 19th century novels above were. Now that the whole book has been released, it can be purchased as a complete work.  The chapters are supplemented with video content and user-generated reports.  The second, Gimbal is a short story anthology where you can select the story you want according to the amount of time you have to read it, by genre, or by setting. Maps and pictures support the stories set in a particular city.  Finally, she nominated Interaction of Colour, which was originally written in 1960 and has been re-released in hardcover version (at a rather eyewatering price!) You can tap on hotspots for definitions; there are video and audio commentaries; and there are interactive activities to complete.  It does sound a bit textbook-y to me, but obviously the images are beautiful and the crystal-clear screen of an ipad would do them justice.  We heard a lot about ‘convergence’ a few years ago, but these three examples all affirm for me the blend of ‘reading’ and ‘viewing’ that was predicted with e-readers and screen-based reading technology.

Finally, and rather depressingly, is a short segment from an ABC radio program called Who’s reading the reader? which can be streamed or read from the transcript.  Apparently digital libraries can track your reading behaviour and the data can be used to provide feedback to authors.  The information could show the point at which readers abandon a story, or jump ahead, or go back a few pages to re-read.  If readers return to favourite characters or scenes, they could be brought into a spin-off story.   Ah, it’s all about the ‘product’ and ‘delighting the consumer’, isn’t it?

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 completed!

awwbadge_2013

Well, as the year draws to a close I learn that the Australian Women Writers Challenge is gearing up again for 2014.  Will I gird up again? Probably.

I nominated myself for the ‘Franklin’ level (read 10, review 6) and exceeded that. I also vowed to focus on female historians in particular.   Here are my reviews, and yes, this is why I haven’t finished my thesis.  “But it’s all FEEDING the thesis” I bleat in self-defence.

Fiction

Susan Johnston ‘My Hundred Lovers’

Margo Lanagan ‘Sea Hearts’

Cate Kennedy ‘Like a House on Fire’

Amy Espeseth ‘Sufficient Grace”

Kate Grenville ‘Sarah Thornhill’

Courtney Collins ‘The Burial’

Drusilla Modjeska ‘The Mountain’

Janette Turner Hospital ‘The Ivory Swing

Histories and Life Writing

Gillian Bouras ‘A Stranger Here

Kim Torney ‘Babes in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image’

Pamela Burton ‘From Moree to Mabo: The Mary Gaudron Story’

Bev Roberts ‘Miss D and Miss N’

Janet Butler ‘Kitty’s War’

Yvonne M. Ward ‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’

Lynette Russell ‘Roving Mariners’

Desley Deacon, Penny Russel and Angela Woollocott (eds) ‘Transnational Lives: Biographies of Global Modernity 1700-Present’

Susan Mitchell ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’

Suzanne Falkiner ‘Eugenia: A Man’

Barbara Caine ‘Biography and History’

Christine Wright ‘Wellington’s Men in Australia’

Sheila Fitzpatrick ‘A Spy in the Archives’

Alice Pung ‘Unpolished Gem’

Judith Lucy ‘The Lucy Family Alphabet’

Kirsten McKenzie A Swindler’s Progress

Funny way to choose a book…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012.  This involves reading and blogging ten books written by Australian women writers over the year.  There are three Australian history books that I want to read that are general enough to qualify (the books can be fiction or non-fiction) and I’m pretty sure that I’ll read seven others quite easily during the year.

It’s holiday time, so I thought I’d make a start.  There are a few new ones I want to read: Anna Funder, Geraldine Brooks, Rosalie Ham, Charlotte Wood have all had books published last year that interest me.  But, oh dear- they’re all out on loan with multiple holds against them. So up to the library I went, happy to browse the shelves to find something.

I don’t think that I’ve ever gone looking for a book restricted by a particular type of author before- i.e. Australian and a woman.  The library has taken to putting little ‘Australian’ stickers on the spines of books so designated, so that made it a bit easier.  It also meant that once I’d found an eligible author, I was more reliant on the descriptions on the back cover than I usually would be.

I must say, though, that I was not well served.  I’m aware that probably the ‘good’ books would be on loan over Christmas, but everything I picked up seemed so domestic and mundane.  Relationships, relationships, relationships…was there nothing else? Many of them sounded like chick-lit even if they weren’t.  What would denote chicklit to me? probably the design on the cover, and the self-absorption of the main character (particularly the female main characters) and the emphasis on male/female relationships.  If I had limited myself to a different formula (e.g. male Australian; female British), would I have felt equally jaded in reading the book descriptions? I don’t know.  I strongly suspect that the description is the publisher and publicist’s decision, rather than the author’s. I wonder how much say the author has.

In the end, I went for Mardi McConnochie’s The Voyagers: a Love Story firstly because I have read her Coldwater which I really enjoyed, but more importantly because it had a setting that interested me.  The other two books that I chose are largely silent about their setting (Kate Legge’s The Unexpected Elements of Love and Sofie Laguna’s One Foot Wrong).  The description of Legge’s book leaves me underwhelmed, and I only found the description of Laguna’s book just now on the inside opening page- when I was standing by the library shelf, I went by Christos Tsiolkas’ blurb.

So if I don’t go by the demographic profile of the author, how do I choose a book? Largely by reviews in blogs, newspapers and magazines, I guess, and looking for subsequent books after I’ve enjoyed an author previously.  If so, this makes the gender disparity in reviewing even more problematic.

Obviously some people read by genre- hence the identifying labels ‘Australian’ ‘Fantasy’, ‘Crime’ etc. on the spines.  I asked Mr Judge, who is trying to reduce his groaning bookshelves by borrowing from the library too, even though he has a horrendous record of accruing enormous overdue fines.  He said that he goes by back-cover descriptions, but he seemed to be attracted by titles too.

And you?

The dilemmas of reading a sequel

At the moment I’m reading River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, the second in what will be the Ibis trilogy.  I very much enjoyed the first book Sea of Poppies, written in 2008 which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

So, some eighteen months later, here I am with the second installment. The sad reality is that I really can’t remember all that much about the first, except that I enjoyed it.  Even my own blog post doesn’t enlighten me particularly.  I’m aware that he’s providing small snippets of back story for those who have not read the first book, but they’re not evocative enough to trigger a rush of memories.  At the moment, all they’re doing is frustrating me- should I remember more about this character???

Reading a trilogy as it is being produced, rather than coming to it later as a finished product, means that there is often a long waiting time between volumes- three years in this case.  Authors generally do back track a bit, but there’s a limit to how much they’re able to do this without retelling the first story over again.  I assume that they write so that a new reader could read it without having read the first book.  However, while the author has probably been living with his characters – and maybe even his/her vision for the work as a whole , for years- readers (or at least, I)  don’t have this same level of intimacy and have moved on to other books and other stories.

So what to do? Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can easily find a plot summary of the earlier book but somehow that feels like cheating.  I feel as if the book should be able to stand on its own two feet, but I’m willing to admit that perhaps the problem in this case lies more with the reader than the author.

Dammit- I’m going to do it.  Lord Wiki, here I come.

 

Count me in too!

The Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge sets out to actively promote the reading and reviewing of Australian women’s writing.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist without a single female author and the imbalance of women writers (18/48) in the National Year of Reading’s Our Story  suggests that it is.

The idea is that you  sign up for reading and reviewing books by Australian women writers during 2012.  You can read in one or multiple genres, and you select the number of reviews you’d like to commit to.   There’s genres listed there that I’m not particularly enamoured of (romance, crime, SF) so I’ll limit myself to fiction and nonfiction and aspire to be a Franklin-fantastic Dabbler (i.e. read 10 books and review four).

Gender bias in reading is so insidious.  I would have thought that I already leaned towards female writers in my fiction reading, but when I count through my Australian literature reviews for 2011, I’ve reviewed nine male writers against eight female.  I didn’t include Australian non-fiction largely because I knew that it would make the statistic look even worse!  Given that I try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist each year, the male authors ticked up during the middle of the year and it was only a bout of female writing at the beginning of the year that brought some semblance of balance to my figures.

So here goes in 2012

‘New Voices’ at Eltham

On Saturday I went up to the “New Voices” Writers’ Festival up at St Margaret’s Church in Eltham.  Apparently it’s been running for a number of years but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it before- or perhaps I just didn’t notice.

I was attracted by the first two sessions in particular that focused on the memoir as a genre: Rodney Hall- twice Miles Franklin winner- speaking about his memoir Popeye never told you, followed by cultural historian David Walker conversing with the biographer and historian Jim Davidson about Walker’s own memoir/reflection Not Dark Yet: A Personal History.

Although distrustful of autobiography as a genre, Hall was spurred to write Popeye never told you mainly for his siblings.  The book covers his childhood in wartime Britain from the ages of 5 to 9, and he intentionally adopted the voice of a child with short sentences, and a child’s eye perspective of size, relationships and causality.  Hence, he chose episodes  for their impact on him rather than their historic or narrative significance, and drawing on the rather linear and black-and white reasoning of a child, he limited his conjunctions to words like “and” “but” “so” etc. It’s a brave, and perhaps rather contrived narrative stroke, and one that could fail disastrously.  However, this review suggests that Hall succeeded well.

The second speaker of the day, David Walker, also moved out of his accustomed genre in writing Not Dark Yet: a Personal History.

After a long career in academe, Walker’s eyesight deteriorated suddenly in 2004 as a result of macular degeneration.  With the term “A personal history” as the rider to his title, this book is not just a memoir (or perhaps an ‘auto-ethnography’ as Walker himself has described it) but also a reflection on family history, history more generally,  memory and storytelling.    When he was  (rather chummily) discussing the book with fellow-historian Jim Davidson, it brought to my mind Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eye, one of the most personally influential books I have ever read.  In fact, it’s not going too far to say that you would not be reading this blog, at least in the guise it is,  had I not read Tiger’s Eye. Historians, I think, approach memoir and autobiography with a particular wariness and cannot completely divorce their professional academic skills from the shaping of their own life-story, so I’m interested to read this book. Certainly Tom Griffiths’ review (another historian I deeply admire) suggests that it will be well worthwhile.

I’m not really a writers’ festival sort of person, which may surprise you, given that I love reading so much.  I do, however, enjoy hearing non-fiction writers talking about grappling with a body of evidence in some form (lived experience, research, primary sources) and shaping it into an argument and narrative.  There’s an independence of the material beyond the author, and a  responsibility on the author’s part for some degree of fidelity.

However,   I’m less drawn to hearing fiction writers speak about their craft.   For me, it’s a bit like reading an artist’s or art critic’s statements about a work in a gallery: a self-consciousness and layering of meaning that seems sometimes contrived and retrospective.  Listening to fiction authors talking about their work- a creation of their own making-  is a discussion that really requires you to have read the book in question, in a way that is not necessarily true for a non-fiction book, and so after a rather good lunch, I left early in the afternoon.

As well as drawing on sponsorship from publishers  and the local council, the day was conducted under the auspices of the Eltham Bookshop. I was saddened to read in the local paper that after 14 years this bookshop, like so many others, is really struggling.  Its proprietor, Meera Govil, is a generous contributor to the cultural and literary life of Eltham and surrounding districts, and the leafy north would be the poorer for her shop’s demise.  I shift a little uncomfortably in my chair as I write this: I rarely purchase books but instead borrow them from libraries or buy them second hand.  I’ve bought from Amazon and Book Depository, and I am drawn by 10% loyalty schemes for the few books that I do buy.  Although I’m still chafing at the e-reader experience, I know that I’ll succumb increasingly if the digital versions are priced attractively enough.  At one stage I promised myself that I would buy one book a month, but that resolution has gone out the window.  I look in despair at the deluge of new books that keep on tumbling into the market, and I am saddened to hear of such small print runs and the out-of-print status of so many precious works. Perhaps print-on-demand might be one form of salvation, but it’s  such a bland and stripped down product in its present form.  It’s all beyond me.

‘Lady Franklin’s Revenge’ by Ken McGoogan

2006, 435p & notes

The author of this book has written several biographies related to arctic exploration and one senses that he came to this biography almost grudgingly.  His other biographies focus on Arctic heroes- John Rae, Samuel Hearne and Elisha Kent Kane.  Amongst these male explorers, Lady Jane Franklin must have seemed an obsessed, vindictive, indulged woman, intent on pushing forward her husband’s reputation to the expense of others’.   Perhaps McGoogan still feels that way, but it seems that he found much more in Jane Franklin than he expected to.

Well educated and well-to-do, Jane Griffin did not marry John Franklin the Arctic explorer until she was thirty-seven years old.  He was a fleshy, dull man and she was driven and ambitious and she used her connections to procure a position for him on the Mediterranean, and later as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land.  She was an inveterate traveller, heading off for months and sometimes years at a time, accompanied by her iron bedstead which she insisted on having assembled for her on her travels.

The author is Canadian, with a readership no doubt attuned to Arctic themes.  But as an Australian, Lady Jane Franklin is far more familiar to us as the Governor’s wife; we see her in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; we know of the Franklin River, and her diaries while travelling to Melbourne and Sydney have been well-mined. In fact, there seems to have been quite a Lady Jane Franklin revival recently.

McGoogan captures well the limitations of women’s financial position and influence in Victorian Britain.  He describes well the small-colony political machinations surrounding the dismissal of the VDL Colonial Secretary Montagu, and the lumbering, stiff style of Colonial Office politics and communications.  Lady Jane Franklin has money in her purse to bankroll numerous expeditions in search of her husband when he disappears into the Arctic white and she uses her connections with Dickens, the media, the American government and the Admiralty well.

There is much detail in this book- rather too much, I thought.  He does rise above the mass of detail to make informed and informative observations about gender, patronage, love, women’s position, memory and memorialization, but sometimes it is engulfed by too much information. Of course, Jane Franklin is a generous source: she diarized her life extensively; there is a wealth of communication; the Colonial Office and British bureaucracy built their edifice on paper and she used the public sphere to her advantage.  It is an embarrassment of riches- oh to have that as a problem! but I can see that sometimes you just have to say ‘enough’.