Wednesday, January 30, 2013

outside of experience

Today I was struck by a post over at a gallimaufry about reading things set in unfamiliar places- and how to visualise them- I wonder whether we can familiarise ourselves with different cultures by reading about them, or will we always miss something when we read about things we don't already know? Like when we figure out the meaning of words from their contexts, but sometimes find out years later that we've gotten them wrong (at least, I have done that).

Then I came across this post on facebook, which is a piece of writing memories of childhood in South India, and I was reminded of that idea again. Because in the piece I can recognise the nostalgia, even if I can't recognise the things the writer is nostalgic for.

This feeds into a lot of different ideas I guess, like the concept of the other, or maybe the subjectiveness of language and meaning sometimes, but I just thought maybe it was some interesting food for thought.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

1990s - miss smilla's feeling for snow (1992)

Finally, and belatedly, my 2012 reading challenge comes to an end, with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg representing the 1990s. It's a book I've been meaning to read for ages, but have somehow never made it past the first page. But while on my beach holiday, accidentally without a book, I found a copy in a second hand bookshop and it seemed the perfect opportunity to finally read it and to finish off my Century of Books challenge at the same time.

In some ways this was an odd book to read on a summer holiday, after all the first sentence reads:
It is freezing, an extraordinary -18°C, and it's snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik - big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost. (Note: I lent this book to my sister when I finished it so I had to look this up online and I'm not 100% sure if it's the translation I read)
While I was lying around trying to escape the heat, which was also extraordinary, hitting over 40°C (over 104°F), and watching bushfire smoke in the sky and on the news every night. But in other ways it was a good choice, not only because it's nice to escape the weather sometimes with a book set in a very different climate, but also because it was a very enjoyable mystery/adventure story that kept me reading, and made me read through it very quickly. I can't imagine why I had never gotten past the first page before, it's quite fast paced. 

Starting off as an investigation into the death of a child by his neighbour, Smilla, a woman in her 30s who is something of a loner, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow ends up being something quite different, an adventure with a touch of sci-fi about it. It's set in Denmark, but Smilla herself is from Greenland, and the background to the story is the tension in her sense of identity as a Greenlander who was brought to Denmark to live by her Danish father after the death of her Inuit mother. More than that, it's also a story about the effects of colonisation. On another climate related note, it was interesting to read a book about colonisation in the context of extreme cold, I'm used to reading colonisation narratives in warm climates- that seems like a small thing but it did make it seem fresh and different. In reality there are a lot of cold-weather colonies, so it shouldn't seem so strange. Anyway, Smilla's background has given her an antipathy towards Denmark, but she also has a strong understanding of snow and ice (intuitive and academically honed), a love of Greenland and a dislike of getting close to other people. She's very resourceful and determined, managing to weather betrayal, a long stint at sea with a crew who are mostly trying to kill her and carrying on an investigation against the background of a sinister conspiracy. She's also pretty ruthless, which makes her an interesting heroine.

Being a thriller set in Scandinavia, in parts I was reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (although this book has a lot less sexual violence!). It might just be that I'm not familiar with the broader thriller genre, but the background sense of corruption by a group with entrenched privilege was familiar, along the looming weight of history, including mentions of past links with Nazis. For me as a reader, this created a sense of menace and fascination. The sense of history shadowing the present was not only created through the mentions of past scientific expeditions and wartime activities, but also more personally in Smilla's memories of life in Greenland with her mother, and then as a child and teenager in Denmark.

There's quite a shift in the middle of the novel when Smilla boards a ship which seems to be bound for Greenland in search a a mysterious scientific find, with the detective story giving way to straight up adventure. As I mentioned before, it almost, but not quite, moves into science fiction territory, particularly when they reach their destination. This half of the book also felt less introspective and less political than the first half, though ultimately I think they tied together.

It's interesting how much the weather in this book affected the experience of reading it. It's a book that will make you feel cold, and it's a book in which snow and ice make a difference to events. So I guess it was the ideal book to cool down with on a hot day, and maybe a good book to read in the cold to appreciate the snowy weather? I wonder, is it more fun to read a book that resonates with your surroundings, or one that contrasts with them?

Friday, January 18, 2013

not wisely but too well

I've been reading Book Lust by Nancy Pearl recently and loving it- it's a collection of lists of books on different topics and to suit different moods put together by a booklover and librarian, and though it seems like an ideal book to dip in and out of I've pretty much been reading it cover to cover (it's helping with a small lack of reading inspiration as well). In the introduction she says:
I love to read. And while I may not absolutely agree with the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading," I come awfully close to subscribing to his sentiment.
I was struck by this, and her dedication to her granddaughter "who I hope grows up loving to read, but not too much." It reminds me of the time a friend in high school told me that some day I would have to stop reading and start living. Of course, I immediately dismissed this, because isn't reading part of living (a vital part, even)? But sometimes I wonder, would I choose the world over a good book? Is it possible to love books too much?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

happy new year!

I do realise that it's a bit late to be wishing people a happy new year, but I've been away out of reach of internet for the past couple of weeks, enjoying views like this one:

Looking out over the lake while eating fish and chips

And this one:
South Coast beaches are beautiful, this is near Tilba
And generally enjoying the beach. I hope everyone had some good holidays as well!

Now it's time to face the fact that a new year has started, head back to work and talk about plans for the year. Specifically, reading plans. On my holiday I did manage to read my 1990s book, so I will soon be able to post about that and finish off my 2012 reading challenge (belatedly). For this year, I want to do something a little bit inspired by the Century of Books challenge and read books published before the 20th Century. Mainly because I have quite a few sitting on my shelves that I can't bring myself to start, and I need a little motivation, and also because I sometimes miss studying history and Old English and want to read some Medieval or older things. I'm being a bit flexible with this, because I'm not sure how long it will take me and I want to leave room to read other things, so my current plan is to read at least one book from each of the following time periods over the next two years (please note the time periods are really rough, they're not necessarily exact fits with the dates, but I thought it would be more fun this way):

Archaic - pre-500 BC
Ancient - 500 BC to 400 AD
Late Antiquity/ Early Medieval - 400 to 1000 AD
Late Medieval - 1000 to 1450 AD
Renaissance - 1450 to 1600 AD
Enlightenment - 1600 to 1800 AD
Nineteenth Century - 1800 to 1900 AD

I want to call it 'A Journey through time and space'. If the challenge is too easy I will read more books from these time periods, or add new ones (e.g. the Edo Period, the Mughal Empire)! I'm interested in adding some periods/places that are less based in the Western Canon, but I'm less familiar with them (and don't have as much sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read), so if you have any suggestions or areas of interest, please let me know.

Also late last year I started up a book group, so I'll be reading for that this year as well. The first book we read was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and next I have to read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The group seems to have pretty diverse reading habits, so it looks like we'll be reading some interesting books.

Apart from that, who knows?