Category Archives: Sunday Salon

Is social reading the future?

reading future

Reading is a quiet and solitary experience for me. I open my book in print or on a screen and immediately immerse myself in that world. I might look up now and again to share a comment with my husband/friend/relative sitting nearby. But generally when I’m reading, I’m in a world of my own, so completely absorbed that I’m oblivious to the passage of time. 

Some academics however, are trying to get me — and you — to change and embrace the idea that our experience of texts can be enhanced if we became more social readers. Social reading can mean different things — to the manufacturers of the Kindle for example, it describes the function where the Kindle reader keeps a record of your highlighted passages and aggregates them with those of anonymous others so that you can see which passages have generated the most interest. 

But for academics, this isn’t social reading. Nor does the term mean going on-line and chatting about a book via Twitter or Facebook or on sites like Goodreads. Nor do they mean the conversation you might have at the coffee machine or in a book club meeting because such casual discussions tend to peter out fairly quickly and rarely get beyond the superficial in their view. What the academics are interested in is a deeply immersive group–based collaborative process that happens on-line. It can involve several readers or even hundreds. All of them read the same text, post comments on it and respond to other people’s comments. Now you might think that’s what you’re doing when you join a ‘read-a-long’ and it’s true this is a fairly simple example of social reading. But for a more sophisticated approach — and the one the academics are most excited about — you’d need to get involved in a synchronous reading where people are reading and commenting on the same text simultaneously. 

I’d never heard of this concept of social reading until recently when I joined an online course run by Coursera about ‘Reading in a Digital Age’. Apparently social reading is one of six strategies we could employ to engage with a text (see  below for the list of strategies).

The Golden Notebook experiment is being held up as the leading example of this kind of social reading. This is where seven women all read the novel The Golden Notebook by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing and they made comments on the text as they made their progress over a period of six weeks. If you go to the Golden Notebook experiment website you’ll see that these readers engaged in what’s called ‘close reading’ and they used a dynamic margin where they added their reactions to the text  as they went along.

 Other platforms have developed that try to do something similar but not in such a closed group environment. Glose is another platform offering a place to engage with other readers – you choose from their selection of books (some free, some you have to buy), read them on any device and then you can highlight/comment etc. I’ve dipped into this but haven’t been that wowed by it – the choice of free books is limited to the classics (because they are out of copyright) and of the few texts I’ve added to my stream I can see a lot of people highlighting passages but hardly any comments. So how does this really let me ‘engage’ with other readers as the platform developers claim is the benefit? To me this is nothing more than the highlight function on my Kindle. There is no deep or extended conversation going on here as the proponents of social reading would have us believe is the future. 

CommentPress and DigressIt are plug-ins for WordPress sites that that lets your readers comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Since I don’t have a self-hosted WordPress site I can’t get these to work so have no idea how useful these plug-ins are. ReadUps is a web-based  that lets  group of readers discuss a particular piece of text – for example if I wanted to get your reactions to this post i could create a new ReadUp, invite you to join (you use your Twitter account to do this) and then you’d be able to add reactions etc in the margin alongside the original text (rather than in the comments underneath). I can set a time limit of up to 2 months for the discussion.  The founder Travis Alber said in an interview that the idea was to provide a platform to enable readers to do what they love doing – discussing a book. If anyone fancies having a go at this, let me know and I’ll set one up as an experiment. 

Apparently this form of social interaction is getting traction. Some teachers have used the platforms as a way to extend the classroom discussion instead of bringing it to a halt at the door. At the University of North Carolina for example one class held a week-long discussion about An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce which resulted in more than 500 comments.  

The ability to carry out a conversation in the margin turns out to be particularly useful for scholars who are using it to conduct new forms of open peer review. MIT Press use it for example to get feedback on a book by Noah Wardrip–Fruin called Expressive Processing and MediaCommons did something similar with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. I can see how much more efficient it would be to get all comments and reactions stored in one place instead of sending out a document as an email attachment and getting individual reponses which then have to be collated. But you can already do that in a number of standard word-processing packages so I’m struggling to see the benefit of a another web-based platform other than its just easier to read comments in a margin. 

So I’m still not convinced that these examples really demonstrate that a collaborative practice of social reading truly enhances our understanding of literary texts. Maybe its too early to come to an opinion one way or another and more experimentation would need to be done but from what I’ve seen of the ‘commercial’ sites, there is a long way to go before this becomes a mainstream idea. 

What types of social reading are there?

If you’re interested in learning more about social reading take a look at an essay by Bob Stein, the founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. The essay is called  ‘A Taxonomy of Social Reading: A Proposal’.

Six reading strategies

  • Hypertext reading: essentially this is what we do whenever we look up some info on a web page and follow hyperlinks to move rapidly to other texts, to images and sounds.
  • Close reading: if you’ve ever followed any academic program on literature, you’ll be very familiar with this strategy. It’s where you ignore all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts and zoom in on the words on the page, teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices and structures that make up a poem, a play, or a novel.
  • Distant reading: This is a relatively new concept introduced by an Italian scholar called Franco Moretti. It’s the direct opposite of close reading. Instead of focusing on individual literary texts, distant readers survey, analyse, and describe hundreds, even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders.
  • Surface reading: Also a relatively new approach, surface reading

    don’t look at what is in the book – but at the stuff the book is made from; it’s physical format if you like. For surface readers, it not only makes a great difference, whether we’re reading a print book or an e-book. It also makes a great difference, whether we’re reading, say, a Shakespeare play in a folio edition, a leather bound first edition, a 21st century cheap reprint, a hardback, a paperback, whether we read any play, novel, or poetry collection in whatever kind of form. 

  • Historical contextualisation: Another standard element of the toolkit of literary analysis, this strategy looks outside of the text itself and to the historical context in which it was written. How does it draw on contemporary events, how does it fit into social debates at that time; how does it give expression to the zeitgeist at the moment of its creation?
  • Social reading: a collaborative way of reading and discussing texts on line

From slaps to battles in #6degrees

the slap #6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.

Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long atonementterm repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed.  I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.

Brideshead revisitedThe tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.

From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set birdsongagainst the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme.  Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?

Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.

OnTheBlackHillSo let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.

Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town Resistanceof Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared,  leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.

During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.

dragonsWelsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great  (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and  his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations.  It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.

And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.

 

My Book Buying Habits

Obama buys books

Even a President cant resist the lure of books

If you are a reader then you are also a buyer of books. Probably many of them. But what kind of buyer are you?  This tag on book buying has been doing the rounds for a while it seems but I only came across it recently via Robert at Book Mongrel. And so here are my secrets revealed…..

1. Where do you buy your books?

Everywhere 🙂 I don’t seem to have a lot of brand loyalty. If its a bricks and mortar shop then it will be Waterstones (there is no other option available because all the other booksellers closed down) where I like to browse what’s just been released. Or if I have a specific book in mind I might go to a small independent bookshop just a few miles from my home who have a good ordering service. When I was doing a lot of business travel I’d spend a lot of time in Barnes and Noble in the US which has a very civilised model of staying open until 10pm and has a coffee shop attached. A perfect way to relax at the end of the day. If its online purchasing then I’ll use AbeBooks, Book Depository or Amazon.

2. Do you ever pre-order books and if so do you do this in store or online?

First let me get something off my chest. I loathe this term pre-order which seems to be creeping in everywhere. It’s a nonsensical term. I can’t order before I order. Whats happened to the good old fashioned term ‘reserve’.

If this is a question about ordering books before they are published, then I can’t recall ever doing that.

3. On average, how many books do you buy a month? 

Right now, none! I decided one of my goals for 2017 was to enjoy all the books I already own but have not read. My buying habits went out of control in the last two years and it’s time to exercise some restraint at least for the first six months of this year. So far I’ve done pretty well and haven’t bought anything – though it hasn’t stopped acquisitions totally because my sister donated three books to me in February and I’ve won a few in give aways. But it’s certainly more restrained than in previous years where I would buy probably about 4 a month. I know other readers buy far more than that but then I don’t read that quickly.

4. Do you use your local library?

Absolutely. I’ve been a library member since early childhood – it was my lifeline in my teens because my parents couldn’t afford to keep up with my voracious reading habits. Going to the library meant I could explore unknown territories of genres and authors without feeling I was wasting money if I didn’t enjoy them. What makes me angry is the way the public library service in the UK is being viewed with hundreds of branches closing as a result of cost cutting measures. Ok some of them are being run by the community but this in no way is a substitute for a professional service. I fought for two years to keep the library in my village but despite taking court action it’s now run by volunteers and has to be funded by the community.

5. If so – how many books can you/do you borrow at a time?

I think the limit for my library is about 5 books at any one time. I tend not to get too many out in one go because I know I’ll never read them before the loan period is up. Many times I will borrow something just to boost the statistics for the number of books issued – but keep that to yourself, I don’t want the local authority bureaucrats knowing I am trying to manipulate their data (!).

6. What is your opinion on library books?

They’re a valuable resource that is sadly undervalued. My one complaint is that the stock seems to be too skewed to popular fiction (way too many minor celebrity memoirs). Not easy though to get anything that is not mainstream (especially if it is in translation). When the Booker Prize longlist came out a few years ago I went off to the library that day and out of 13 titles on the list I could find only 3 either in stock or on order.

7. How do you feel about charity shop/second hand books?

I love them. Just wish there were more of them within easy reach that stocked the books I want. There is a branch of the British Heart Foundation in the nearest town to me where I’ve been lucky with a few of the Booker Prize winners like The Famished Road (so glad I didn’t spend much on that since it was dire and I could not finish it) and an Iris Murdoch. Oxfam has a dedicated book shop that I drop in  whenever I’m in Cardiff shopping though I think their prices are a bit on the high side. For a few years I thought that was the only option since all the other second hand shops I knew of closed down. But last year I discovered one that has a wonderful selection of the original Virago green editions. Paradise is only a few miles away!

8. Do you keep your read and TBR pile together/on the same book shelf or not?

They’re separate otherwise the bookshelves would be in an even greater mess than they are currently

9. Do you plan to read all the books that you own?

That’s the idea certainly and I’m gradually reducing the number that are still to be read. My only problem area is with my non fiction books. I buy them fully intending to read them but often never get around to it….

10. What do you do with books that you own and that you feel you’ll never read/felt you didn’t enjoy?

I either donate them to a charity shop or to the library. Or I take to a cafe which is a bookcrossing zone in Cardiff.

11. Have you ever donated books?

Regularly. Either my own copies or – for a few years – via the World Book Night scheme

12. Have you ever been on a book buying ban?

I tried this a few times in the past but it never worked. This year I’ve been far more successful and have lasted almost 4 months without purchasing anything. I put this down to three things: 1. I retired end of last year so haven’t had to do long business trips where I invariably stock up on reading material before I leave home 2. Because I’ve  been recovering from two rounds of surgery this year I haven’t been out and about in shopping areas as much as in the past and 3. Being careful when I open emails from publishers announcing some new titles. Instead of ordering them on auto pilot as I did in the past, I now just add them to my wishlist in Goodreads.

13. Do you feel that you buy too many books?

Tough question to answer – what is too many? I like to have a choice for sure so will always have more books in the house than I can read in a year. But yes my buying habits did get a bit out of control in the last two years and I found I was picking them up without much thought as to why I wanted to read that particular title.


Hope you enjoyed this – I’d love to see your answers to these questions.

 

Wales gets on the map

Time to get that cuppa brewing and those Hot Cross buns buttered. After a lifetime of tasting various versions of these buns I feel qualified to vote the ones my dad makes as by far the best. Even though he gave up his baking business more than 20 years ago he keeps his hand in every Easter with a bunch of these buns for selected customers only (ie family and friends). Forget about those variations they now offer in supermarket – chocolate flavoured for goodness sake – they are no substitute for the real thing. Sorry you can’t taste them for yourselves but I’m planning to scoff the lot…..

Suitably sustained I’m in good shape to do a catch up on what’s been happening in the Booker Talk world of late.

Wales on the Map

I admire bloggers like Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums who are advocates for the literature from their country. Reading their blogs made me realise last year how poor a job I did as an ambassador for my own native land of Wales. I’ve been slowly rectifying that on the blog (you can see some of the results on the Authors from Wales page). The Book on the Map series run by Cleopatra at CleopatraLovesBooks has given me an opportunity put Wales into the spotlight via an interview with the author Thorne Moore who lives in Pembrokeshire and whose book A Time of Silence I discovered late last year. If you have a moment in between all that bun-eating, do take a look at the interview on Cleo’s site and the superb photos.

2017 Goals Update

Goal settingLet’s start with the good news here. My first goal was to cut back on buying/acquiring anything new so I could enjoy the ones I already own. At the start of the year I had 314 unread books in my personal library. Just over three months into the year and the tally has broken the 300 mark – just (at 298). It would have been even lower but the fact I gained a few donations from my sister (two of which have duly been returned unread) and I won two giveaways. It hasn’t been as onerous as I expected though I won’t guarantee not to slip a little in the next few weeks. The one thing I know I’ll have to watch is that I don’t over-compensate for the enforced deprivation by buying a stack of new stuff in the second half of the year.

How about the second goal which is to get a bit more creative with images I use on this blog? swallows-of-kabulThis got off to a slow start. I worked my way through a manual on how to use the Photoshop software program but it was hard going. I had bought a scaled down version because I know the full one is way too sophisticated for my needs but even then the vast array of tools was just confusing. I produced a few montages – like this one of the Swallows of Kabul but they weren’t any great shakes and each one seemed to take forever to produce.  Then last week I did what I should have done months ago – turned to my resident Photoshop expert (otherwise known as Booker Talk husband) who uses the full blown version for his graphic design work.  I’d stupidly assumed the two versions wouldn’t be similar to any great degree. But after just one hour he figured out what I needed to do and away I went.

My first attempt – His His-Bloody-ProjectBloody Project – turned out pretty well I thought though I had to go knocking on his door for help more than once.
The second one – The Daughter of Time – was all my own work. Now I’m not claiming these are brilliant but they are a lot more visually appealing than the standard book cover image I’ve used for the last few years. Maybe not quite a giant leap for mankind but this certainly counts as progress.

Project Update 

This week I finished reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy which represent a significant milestone in my Booker Prize project. It means I now have just 10 titles remaining to read. What’s been the best titles I’ve read so far? You might have seen a recent joint post I did with fellow blogger Joslyn of Chronic Bibliophilia on this point. We challenged ourselves to identify our top three Booker winning titles. Here are my top three. I’ve also ranked all the others in order and in due course will reveal my least favourite titles. Of course these choices might change by the time I get to the end of the project – certainly my enjoyment of The God of Small Things has pushed that up to the top of the list.

Progress on the Classics Club has been just as slow this year as it was in 2016. I’ve read only one title on my Classics Club list so far this year but it was a good one – Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. But hey these are classics and most of them have been around for a hundred years or so; I reckon they can wait a few more years until I get to them.

And that’s it for today everyone. Back to working my way through the rather large collection of chocolate my mum seemed to think it was essential I had this Easter Sunday. Hope you all enjoy your day….

10 literary mothers – the good, the bad and the ugly

It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.

To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.

Role model mothers

Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Idealised motherhood as seen in this 1949 film version of Little Women

If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.

 

 

Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.

Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue

Protection of  her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of  the limited resources at her disposal.

Questionable behaviour

Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift

Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details  I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.

Mrs Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet in BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity.  She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses.  Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.

Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities?  Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life  have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.

Beyond redemption? 


‘The Mother’: Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.

 

Corinne Dollanganger: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews 

Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.?  And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?

Medea: Medea by Euripides

If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:

“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)

When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.”  Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?

 

Booker Prize Project – the end in sight

Booker prize finish line

Approaching the finishing line

Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.

Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).

Winners 21st century 

2015A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Winners 20th century 
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)

 The ones I am least looking forward to are  How Late It Was, How Late  by James Kelman and  A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).

My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.

Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?

5 lessons in book blogging

fifth-birthday

A significant milestone this week – the fifth anniversary of this blog. And a chance to look back over the last few years and appreciate just how far I’ve progressed. Not that I am claiming to be an expert now ; in fact I still feel I am wearing my ‘learner’ plates; but  I’ve definitely made progress. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the five-year journey….

Lesson 1: Avoid the ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality: I was disappointed in the first year that my posts didn’t attract many viewers or comments. I would look at other blogs and get envious at the response their content attracted. It took a while for the penny to drop that the world wasn’t exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for my thoughts on a Booker prize-winning novel. In other words that I couldn’t just publish something and expect everyone to rush to read and comment.  I’d have to work at it; I would need to engage more myself with other bloggers. It wasn’t until I began connecting with other bloggers, commenting on their posts and joining a few challenges, that things began to change.

Lesson 2: Add new content regularly: One of the questions most commonly asked of blog experts is “how often should I post new content’.  Not surprisingly the answer is usually “it depends.” By which they mean it depends on how much you have to say about your particular topic and what you think is your readers’ appetite for hearing from you. I’ve seen some blogs – usually ones which review products like cameras or software, which are updated everyday and sometimes even more than once a day. Equally I’ve come across blogs which just get updated once a month. The more common approach it seems is to go for three or four new pieces a week. When I first started I knew nothing about these best practices. I just posted when I had something to say – which was essentially once a week. But over time that’s changed. I no longer have to scratch my head to think of subjectsI want to write about and actually have a list of potential topics that I keep updating when new ideas come to mind (usually at the most inconvenient times like when I am driving and its too dangerous to start searching for pen and paper).  Even so I’m also conscious that it’s easy to overdo the content and irritate readers who are busy people and don’t have time to read multiple postings from me. Nor frankly do I have the time to do much more right now. Ideally I go for three posts a week but if some weeks that goes down to two, I can’t imagine anyone will cry.

Lesson 3: A blog is not just for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen ads with the slogan “a dog isn’t just for Christmas” aimed at people who bow to pressure from their kids to buy a puppy only to find the novelty wears off after a few weeks. But the poor animal still needs feeding, walking, cleaning etc. And so it is with a blog. It needs regular nourishment in the form of new content. If  needs to feel love through regular interaction; acknowledgements that people have taken the time and trouble to leave a comment so you should respond accordingly. And it needs regular maintenance – checking web links are still active for example, and archives are up to date. The key lesson for me in recent years is just how much time it all takes – and that doesn’t include the time to check out other people’s blogs and comment on their content…..

Lesson 4: Find your own voice. I mentioned last week that I’ve been doing some spring cleaning on the site (you can find that post here), visiting some old content and doing a refresh. Reading again those posts from five years ago has been a salutory experience. They were well written in the sense that were grammatical. But oh so dull and worthy. They don’t sound like me at all. Maybe some people right from the off have a unique style that reflects their personality but for me it’s taken a while to stop sounding like a professor and more like someone you could have a chat with about books. There’s a long way to go yet to achieve the tone I’d like but at least I no longer cringe when I read my posts.

Lesson 5: Stick to what you love

Creating the blog marked my entry into an entirely new world, one which had its own vocabulary. Readathon, meme, TBR: all foreign concepts to me. Fortunately there were a few kind people around who took pity on me and explained the new jargon. I must admit I got carried away for a time, joining multiple challenges and latching on to every new idea that came my way. It was fun initially but then began to feel that the blog was no longer my  space, it was being driven not by me but by the need to keep up with external events. Instead of writing what I wanted to write about I was answering prompts from challenges and readathons etc. Gradually I’ve been weaning myself off these. I still do a few memes like the Sunday Salon, Top Ten Tuesday and Six Degrees of Separation but only when I feel like doing them not because I am slavishly pedalling away on a treadmill. If a particular prompt doesn’t interest me then I let it go. In short I will do only what I enjoy doing.

And the future?

There is still so much about blogging I don’t understand (like HTML) and many best practices  I have yet to put into use like search engine optimisation. I’m also still vacillating on whether to go for a self hosted site to give even more flexibility in how the blog looks. So plenty for me to focus on for the next five years.

What lessons have you learned while blogging?

Whether you’ve been blogging for 1 year, or 5 or 10, I’m confident you’ve learned some lessons along the way. So do share via the comments option – what’s been your biggest learning experience? What do you want to learn next?

Spring-cleaning the blogsite

springcleaningI know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey.  But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.

I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.

Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information.   His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.

I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.

I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.

One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.

How are your blogging skills?

Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?

Why indie presses need your Amazon reviews

helpIn the five years since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads and Library Thing but I never gave much thought to putting them on Amazon. It’s not that I’ve consciously ignored that site or decided to make a stand over the way they allegedly use strong arm tactics to squeeze discounts from publishers and authors. It just never occurred to me that there was any real need to post reviews or comments there.

But then I got an email from an indie publishing company late last year which has caused me to rethink my approach with books I get via NetGalley. Anne from Le French Book www.lefrenchbook.com provided a reality check on the economics of book publishing and why, for small publishing houses Amazon reviews really do matter. Apparently publishers have to pay to get their books listed on NetGalley – they give these copies away in order to promote their authors. The reviews we put on our blogs don’t bring them any income however though they are important in word of mouth promotion.

On average, there are about 260 people who click to read our titles on Netgalley. If they actually all bought the title, we could pay our Netgalley subscription, but they get it free. If we actually got 260 (or even 200, or 150, or 100) reviews online, it would have a real impact on our sales. Amazon’s algorithm would do the work.

Despite an aversion to Amazon that I’ve noticed among some bloggers, the reality is that this is the site where visibility matters. This is still the biggest market place for potential buyers, they go there in their hundreds of thousands and they use reviews to help them make decisions on which books to buy. A handful of reviews per book,  simply isn’t enough for readers to start noticing – these publishing houses need well beyond 30 reviews for them to make the promotion efforts worthwhile and help them keep generating enough profit to bring out new books.

How we can help

The appeal from Le French Book is really simple. It’s just requires each of us to take these few steps:

  1. Visit the Amazon website page for the books we read on Netgalley.
  2. If you are able to buy it, the publisher would be extremely grateful
  3. Either way, leave an honest review of the book. Even just a few lines could make all the difference but of course a few paragraphs are even better one line or five.
  4. And a step that never occurred to me – if you are A UK, Canadian or Australian reader, don’t just put your review on the local version of Amazon. Cut and paste it to the  US page, too (that’s the one the publisher refers to when they try to book advertising and promotions).

Not difficult is it? It doesn’t take much time but when publishers are feeling the pinch it seems only fair for us to show our appreciation of the free copies we receive.

One other thing I’ve learned from this publisher is to avoid getting over enthusiastic when requesting books from NetGalley. I have too many sitting unread on the e-reader and for every one of those, there is a cost impact on the publisher. So from now I am going to request only those books I am committed to reading. And to make sure I upload the review to Amazon.

 

Now it’s over to you  

Do you put reviews on Amazon? Will you consider doing so for books you get from indie publishers in the future?

2017 goals: my breakthrough to guaranteed success

A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.

Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……

Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.

clocks-1098080_1920Goal setting Tip 2 : use a shorter planning time frame 

Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.

For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.

goal_settingGoal setting Tip 2: Be realistic 
The other key mistake is to be too ambitious, spreading the energy over too many projects and activities. Many of us fall into this trap where the only way to manage all the activities is to keep a To Do list – and then end up frustrated because instead of crossing stuff off, the list just seems to grow … and grow…. and grow. We’re not alone – research by a others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once. A startup called iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list  users created were never accomplished. Why? Too many items were included so the list looked overwhelming and there was little attempt at prioritisation. It was easy to knock off some things – ‘send email to xyz’  for example or ‘buy milk for tonight’ but by spending all the effort on the easy things, the harder, more rewarding activities simply never got done.
Understanding these two challenges helped me reach a decision on my 2017 goals. My mantra is encapsulated in this image….

enjoy-2017

 

Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals

Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months.  And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.

Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read

I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all.  I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.

My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. 

Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.

Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog

I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…

My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. 

And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.

Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?

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