Monday, January 30, 2012

Google ebooks

I was excited to learn recently that Google ebooks has now made buying through local bookstores much, much easier. For reasons previously discussed on this blog, I am no fan of Amazon. I was sad to learn last year that my favourite source for ebooks, The Book Depository, had been purchased by Amazon.

Never fear! Google ebooks has teamed up with independent bookstores to give you both range AND the ability to support your friendly neighbourhood indy bookstore. I found out about this through Laura Miller, who wrote about it here. The ebooks are sourced from Google ebooks, but you buy through your favourite bookstore's website and they get a cut.

The idea is still catching on in Australia, but at present you can already support Australian businesses by buying your Google ebooks through Booktopia or Dymocks.

Don't forget, if you're looking for places to get ebooks in general, Project Gutenberg is your best source for free ebooks of out-of-print books, and Inkmesh can help you find tricky-to-find ebooks.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stunning stationery, and the lost art of letter writing

I've always wanted to be a 'woman of letters', someone who can write long newsy letters about day-to-day nothings and the weather. I've been reading about C.S. Lewis recently (there is a forthcoming blog in that, I promise), and Lewis was a great letter-writer who could get away with writing about things like snow:

"We had about a week of snow with frost on top of it and then the rime coming out of the air and making thick woolly formations on every branch. The little wood was indescribably beautiful. I used to go and crunch about on the crusted snow in it every evening--for the snow kept it light long after sunset. It was a labyrinth of white--the smallest twigs looking thick as seaweed and building up a kind of cathedral vault overhead."

I can't help thinking the pace of life is a bit too fast for me to bother writing lengthy descriptions of weather (besides, Australia's sticky summers don't inspire the same poetic style), but I have enlisted Florentine Australia to help me get inspired to write letters to distant friends. They're based in Sydney, but they also have an online store with reliable delivery.

Last year I bought a dip pen, along with a wax seal with my initials on it, and was delighted by the quality of both the products and the customer service. Florentine's commitment to customer satisfaction became apparent when I received an email saying that unfortunately one of the products I had requested was currently out of stock. I had two choices: I could wait a week for the product to arrive (they would send the rest immediately, of course), or I could have another, more expensive product in its place.

Here's the pen of which I am now the proud owner:

To complement my set, I received a blotter for my birthday. Now all I need is an inkwell!

It certainly has been a pleasure using beautiful notepaper, dipping my pen into ink and listening to the the slight scratch as my pen moves across the surface of the paper. Letter-writing has become a tactile experience I really enjoy. Now, to find something to write about which isn't already known to my friends via facebook.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Watchmen and philosophy

Last night I finally got around to watching Watchmen, the 2009 film of Alan Moore's comic book. I had been looking forward to it because a few of my philosophical friends had told me that Watchmen is full of interesting philosophical perspectives.

While it's true that you could use the film as a springboard for philosophical discussions (e.g.; which character is more moral: the profoundly detached Dr. Manhattan or the psychopathically utilitarian Ozymandias?), I found myself disappointed on the philosophical front. At first I wasn't sure why, because the film does clearly present a range of philosophically interesting ideas. Today, I finally put my finger on the problem.

Philosophy isn't just ideas. Philosophy is about what we care about.

I loved the way Watchmen was shot, the central idea that people who go in for masked crime-fighting probably aren't in it for pure reasons (liberty, justice and the American dream), the action sequences (I could actually tell what was happening!) and the fabulous opening sequence with the iconic blood-spattered smiley face. What I didn't love was a single one of the characters, the world it was set in or the complexities of the story.

I found myself emotionally detached from the film the entire way through. I didn't care what happened, because the characters were uninteresting and the fictional world unbearably bleak and devoid of hope. I don't know how much of this is due to the original graphic novel, as I haven't yet read it, though I do know the film adaption of Moore's V for Vendetta doesn't commit the same sins. I don't think this is just a matter of my temperament or my particular relationship to the text. Watchmen felt as if the filmmakers were so engrossed in visual mastery and ideas that they forgot to throw in anything to make the viewer care. The world is ugly, the characters lack character. I didn't even catch most of their names, superhero or ordinary. I recall the Comedian, who dies in the first few minutes of the film, and the Silk Spectre, who retires in the opening credits. The main character (who, I discovered through Google, is actually the second Silk Spectre) was unmemorable enough that she remains in my mind 'the chick who played Tess in 27 Dresses'.

In response to this, my literature-loving self screams in protest. This is not the ideal relationship between fiction and philosophy! Fiction can, and often does, make philosophical ideas apparent, but it contributes nothing to philosophy if it doesn't first and foremost make us careAll fiction is philosophy, and films that are overt about it (like Watchmen) often do a terrible job at communicating it. (I blogged here about the relationship between fantasy fiction and philosophy, a relationship which at its best is a match made in Heaven.)

Fiction is the place where philosophy plays the heartstrings.

Philosophy is Gandalf plummeting into blackness because some things are more important than the life of a grand wizard (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). Philosophy is Satine and Christian struggling with the conflicts between prostitution and would-be monogamous love (Moulin Rouge). Philosophy is Guido's unshakeable conviction that life is beautiful despite the horrors of WWII (Life is Beautiful). Philosophy is the clash between giving to the poor and obeying the law (any version of Robin Hood). Philosophy is the realisation that love actually is all around (Love Actually). Philosophy is the feminism in freely choosing marriage and a domestic life (Mona Lisa Smile).

Philosophy is intrinsically bound up in what we care about, or it is nothing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

My intention to blog once a month was left unfulfilled in December. But then, so are most intentions for December. I have much to blog about (including Google ebooks) but for now, a quick post about a recent Laura Miller article at Salon which can be found here. Miller notes that endings aren't as widely discussed and remembered as beginnings, and invites readers to post their favourite novel endings.

I had to smile when one reader mentioned the last line of C.S. Lewis's Prince Caspian: " 'Bother!' said Edmund. 'I've left my new torch in Narnia.' "

The ending that immediately jumped to mind for me was the deliciously creepy final paragraph of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper': "Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!" (Of course, not so deliciously creepy if you haven't read the story.)

I also love the ending of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, with it's haunting final line: "She says nothing at all, but simply stares upward into the dark sky and watches, with sad eyes, the slow dance of the infinite stars." But again, the impact of this line is non-existent if you haven't been on the journey, if you are not acquainted with the 'she' in question.

Of course, I adore both endings of The Princess Bride (the Morgenstern ending and the Goldman ending): "I'm not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sequels: The Sending and The Magician King

This month I've been reading long-awaited sequels.

Isobelle Carmody's much-anticipated The Sending was finally released at the end of October. Originally planned as the final book of five in the Obernewtyn Chronicles (the first book is Obernewtyn, first published in 1987), The Sending is actually book number six, with book seven, The Red Queen, due next year. I started reading the Obernewtyn Chronicles at about age 16, and have been awaiting a conclusion to the series ever since.

What can I say about The Sending? If, like me, you read and loved the Obernewtyn Chronicles as a teenager, it's definitely worth reading. Isobelle Carmody's prose doesn't exactly sparkle; the plot is poorly paced and the first-person narrative is at times frustrating. However, the characters are the same characters you read about and loved all those years ago. They are dear friends, and the opportunity to once more glimpse them as they live and breathe and dream is welcome. Carmody has not lost touch with her characters over the 25+ years she has spent writing the Obernewtyn Chronicles. I love these characters so much that I read the book in a single sitting.

However, a few warnings: Elspeth, the narrator, remains somewhat short-sighted and often jumps to conclusions on little evidence. This  becomes a problem because the narrative is intensely focused on Elspeth's introspection, so the reader is often subjected to several pages of soliloquy in which Elspeth bemoans imagined misfortunes. The focus on introspection also means that the plot moves much more slowly than necessary. The rationale for splitting The Sending into two books (The Sending and The Red Queen) was that there is just too much story to fit into one book, but The Sending could easily have been half the length.

The other long-awaited sequel I read this month is The Magician King by Lev Grossman, sequel to his The Magicians. The Magicians is a little-known but brilliant novel about Quentin Coldwater, a Brooklyn teenager who ends up attending Brakebills, a university of magic. One review I read described The Magicians as 'Harry Potter meets Trainspotting'. There is fantasy, there is magic, but these books are definitely for grown-ups. Read Laura Miller's Salon review of The Magicians here.

In stark contrast to The Sending, Grossman's characters are not always likeable (Quentin can be quite a dick at times), but the plot of The Magician King always moves along. As in The Magicians, Grossman continues to draw on both (quite overtly) Rowling's Harry Potter and (more subtly) Lewis's Narnia, exposing fantasy tropes to the cold light of adult life, making magic uncomfortable and real, yet somehow leaving a sense of wonder. Grossman has a rare talent: he is able to write fiction which is unflinching and sometimes cynical, and to write it in a fantasy novel. This is no broody literary novel with magical elements: Grossman never forgets that he is writing genre fiction, and genre fiction demands to be plot-driven. Give his books a go. You won't regret it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pratchett's utopian dystopia

"Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. 
It always defeats order, because it is better organized." -Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times 

"Citizens hate living there and, if they have to move away ... can't wait to get back so they can enjoy hating
living there some more." -Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures 

I have been reading a lot of Pratchett this year, and one interesting (and somewhat surprising) theme in the Discworld books keeps sticking out to me. Pratchett's characters are ambitious, they dream of a better world, but whenever a better world comes along they are distinctly uncomfortable with it.

Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city in Discworld, is presented as a kind of utopian dystopia: a place where chaos reigns; where peace is maintained simply because the citizens are used to major political upheaval; you can depend on not being able to trust anyone; you get a receipt for being mugged; the river is so polluted it's deadly and law-enforcement amounts to pitting one criminal against another in a delicate balancing act. And yet Ankh-Morpork is described so lovingly that you'd be forgiven for thinking it's heaven on earth.

This has got me thinking, and I wonder if Pratchett is onto something: perhaps people really are happier with the chaos and the imperfections of everyday life than they would be with peace, prosperity and equality. At any rate, Pratchett is right about one thing: even in dystopian surroundings, life goes on and life is a wonderful, adventurous thing.

Speaking of Ankh-Morpork, a board game based on the loveable fantasy city was released last month, and my copy arrived last week. If you're a Discworld fan, it's worth checking out. The game is unbelievably fun, and loyal to the characters represented. The first time I played it I enjoyed many shared giggles with my fellow players over the depictions of characters we know and love.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Oh, Mr. G!

Not only is Neil Gaiman utterly fabulous, he also affiliates himself with so many fabulous people/shows/projects that I could happily spend weeks watching and listening to his various appearances and interviews in various wonderful settings and with various wonderful people. The latest of these is his appearance in Season 5, Episode 7 of The Guild.

He says in his blog: "Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the version of me I play in The Guild and the version of me I play in The Simpsons and the version of me I played in Arthur teamed up to fight crime and encourage people to read by hiding in their fast food."

When is a character essentially gendered?

Yesterday I finished reading Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey. Having read good reviews of the book and hearing it described as "the fantasy novel you wish Jane Austen had written", I had expectations of a historical romantic satire, with an interesting fantasy twist. Unfortunately, the novel didn't quite deliver.

Simply put, the book was far too gendered for my taste. I want to be cautious here, because I think this is an area in which feminists sometimes do more harm than good. They obsess over the representation of women in literature and cinema, and in doing so sometimes turn characters into gendered objects. In my ideal feminist world, female characters aren't considered good representations of women because they aren't considered as representations of gender at all. They are just characters. Fictional people with interesting motivations and complex personalities. Sometimes women are reduced to their biological or social roles by the critical feminist, who insists that a character's worth should be evaluated in terms of how successfully she represents women.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Sending

For those who haven't already heard, The Sending, book 6 of Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, is due at the end of October. However, as with book 5 (The Stone Key), this will no longer be the final book of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, with one more to come. At the moment, the expected release date of the final book is early next year, but I'll believe it when I see it.

If you're not familiar with the Obernewtyn Chronicles, they are a teen fantasy series by Australian author Isobelle Carmody. The first book was published in 1987. I don't yet know whether I ought to recommend them - I'm sure I will write about it once I have read the final book.

Sunday, August 28, 2011