Category Archives: Thoughts/Discussion

Sunday Salon: Bookstore Rituals

Bookstores are a little like a safe haven to me. When I step inside I usually feel at ease pretty fast, because I know that I am in a place where most others are looking for the exact same things that I am there for: books.

VanderVeldeGroningenMy favourite bookstore in Groningen. [image credit]

Browsing a bookstore in the Netherlands, where English is not the native language, for me means that I have a set ritual of where I look. I locate the English books section and I go through the shelves set aside for these books. I need not even be looking for a specific title. I admit: sometimes I go into a store just to look at books, see what they have, not planning to buy anything, just to see books. Because Dutch stores have to import their foreign language books and usually have a more limited number of customers that buy them, there is a definite selection in the titles they portray. It is this selection that I am often curious about: Do they have the titles that are receiving the latest hype in the blogging world? Do they have at least a few of the long or shortlisted books for the most recent book awards? Do I recognise some of my favourite books, or ones that have been on my wish list for long? I admit, I judge the store by the quality of their English book selection. Yes, it is unfair for a country in which a majority of the books sold in stores are those published in Dutch. But it is what makes me either love a store, or only go there because it is a bookstore and therefore inherently more interesting to me than, say, a shoeshop.

If I am lucky, the store will also have a separate bookshelf for English books in the Children’s or Young Adult section. This is my next stop in the store. Unfortunately I have to admit that these sections usually only lead to disappointment, as YA books featured in English are often only the very big sellers, like Twilight (again, it makes sense, but it’s not what I’d like to see).

So why do I bother to tell you all of this?

Well, when I was in London last December, and when I visited England and met up with a group of wonderful bloggers the year before, I noticed something every time we entered a bookstore..

Here’s the thing. I always dream of an all-English bookstore. There are a few in Amsterdam, but Amsterdam is at least 2 hours from where I live. I dream of a store where I can enter and not judge it by its having the books I already own, the books I already know about, the books that are familiar to me. I rarely go to a book store in the Netherlands to browse and find new titles, because I know the most effective way to find these books is in my online community where I am more in touch with the Anglophone market. When I am in the Netherlands, my time in a bookstore is limited because I only have so many shelves to browse (five book cases if I am very lucky). So I get to look at all the books they own in English. There is a finite number of books to see. And that is when I leave (with or without a book), because I know that I have seen all there is to see for me. And I can be either happy because I have found quite a few books that I own/want/have heard great things about (this always makes me want to find the shop keeper and tell him or her how wonderful their English books section is), or I leave slightly frustrated by the fact that I am living in a non-Anglophone country.

The thing is, when I enter a bookshop in England, my bookstore rituals go all topsy-turvy. And it confuses me. There is no finite number of shelves to browse (well, there are, but their number is exponentially bigger). There is no looking for the newest titles in between your standard classics, because there are whole shelves of new books. And the Children’s section? I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of books I want to read & touch & have. Same goes for the Fiction section. The Young Adult section. They might even have a separate Classics section.

So what did I do in London? Out of sheer overwhelmedness, I did not browse looking for new to me titles. I had no clue where to begin. Instead, I looked for the familiar, something I had never dreamed I would do in my English-bookshop-of-dreams. Of course, there are a very large number of familiar books. So much so that my partner experienced some of what I experience when we visit a large music store together: I always wanted to see more, him having to wait for me yet longer. The realisation that here are books by A.S. Byatt, by Angela Carter, by Patrick Ness, by Diana Wynne Jones.. They are there, physically there, to choose from. This probably sounds dramatic to any UK, Australian, or US resident, but it is something that definitely made me feel a little in awe. And just a tad overwhelmed. Where do you start? How do you choose? So I browsed the sections that usually make me feel comfortable: I looked for authors familiar to me but whose books I did not own. I held their books in my hand. Then I moved to the Children’s section, because there is something comforting about it being a self-contained section of infinite and yet finite choice. I looked for all the books I love. I stroked their spines. I stood there with 10 unowned books by Diana Wynne Jones before me. Overwhelmed, but very very content.

It brought home the limitations of my regional bookstores in the Netherlands: to see so many of the books you love, or want to own, together in one space, without having to browse Amazon for the titles.. it’s all kinds of wonderful. But it is also a lot to take in when you are not used to it. So I resorted to the familiar in the unfamiliar. More than ever, it brought home to me how my bookstore visits are almost ritualised. In the Netherlands because I only seek out those sections that bring me joy. In the UK because I look for something that helps me be somewhat selective in a sea of choice. And I always, always, touch those books familiar, loved, or that I feel would be loved by me.

It also made me wonder if any other book lovers have such bookstore rituals. Do you?

200 years of Pride and Prejudice, and my new favourite adaptation

Today marks the 200 year anniversary of the date on which Pride and Prejudice was first published. I have written about my love for this novel before. I can never quite do it justice, for it was one of those books that I feel helped to define me as a reader. I decided against a rereading of the classic on this particular date, because I am trying to limit my rereadings to once every few years. However, I have found a new way to relive the story a few months ago, which I admit has me quite as obsessed with the characters and narrative as I was when I first discovered Jane Austen’s wonderful novel: As most of my twitter followers might have realised because of my endless squeeing over the past weeks, I am, of course, talking about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

caption credit

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in the form of a youtube vlog in which Lizzie Bennet plays the lead. The basic set up is that Lizzie is a master student who starts recording a vlog with the help of her best friend Charlotte Lu. On this vlog, she discusses her mother’s everlasting quest for husbands for her three daughters (Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia; Mary is a cousin and Kitty is Lydia’s cat), but she also talks about her efforts to finish her studies, her job prospects, and the interactions with her sisters and other friends. Some of these characters appear in real life (Lydia and Jane appear on-screen almost from the beginning) and others are impersonated by Lizzie, among whom are her mother and father.

It might surprise some that my title states that I will be talking about my new favourite adaptation, and that it is not the 1995 mini series. But honestly, LBD is definitely vying for that top position, and at this moment it is located firmly at the top of the list. No, it is not a costume drama (although there are a lot of costumes), it is not a period piece, and it is not 100% faithful to the book. Nevertheless, it manages to highlight all the things I so dearly love about this story, and also add in their own interpretation.

One of the strengths of this web-based series is its characterisation. Because it is set up as a video blog, in which Lizzie is often brutally honest, you truly feel you get to know the characters. Furthermore, a lot of them receive a more thorough characterisation than in the novel. Because Jane and Lydia appear on camera as themselves, because you see part of their day-to-day interactions, they become very well-rounded persons (something which is, as Ana mentioned in her post yesterday, always implied in Austen’s novel, but is in some ways more explicit here). Moreover, because of Lizzie’s brutal honesty, which does not necessarily spare anyone, the character growth of both Lizzie and Darcy (and Lydia and Jane!) is highlighted very directly. Lizzie makes mistakes on camera, which she then also has to fix (or grow into fixing) on camera. The character progression of everyone involved is really well-done, and very interesting to watch.

LBD - costume theatre

caption credit

There is an added incentive to care about the characters which has to do with the fact that this is a web-based series. Part of it comes from the realisation that these vlogs are out there, and that the “characters” can watch and find them at any time. The characters themselves become more real because most of them have twitters and tumblrs and such, so that you can follow them as they do things and then compare/contrast this with the portrayal in Lizzie’s vlog. The show has engaged with this transmedia aspect of their production in very interesting ways which increases the realism of the story. I admit that I spent last Saturday stalking some of the characters’ twitters (don’t open them if you’re not up to date with the series), because it promised to have some very interesting story developments.

Because of the way different online media intersect in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, it has developed a very loyal fan base, and every time I open a video I always find it extremely interesting to see the reactions, the interactions, and the involvement of all these people. Yes, true, many TV shows have loyal fan bases, but because there’s the added illusion that Lizzie is there, somewhere in LA, recording her vlog every Monday and Thursday, the sense of interaction becomes more “real”. (And, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries wouldn’t be as amazing as it is if it did not also address these very illusions of reality in its own videos).

Last but not least is definitely the manner in which the story is translated to a contemporary setting. There are more movies who have done this, more or less successfully, but this one does a stellar job at updating the social issues caught in the book. Yes, class relations are a part of that, and I particularly enjoy the ways in which this is implicitly (and explicitly) made a subject. Moreover, as some of the minor characters receive more attention, they sometimes also receive more agency. Georgiana’s (Gigi’s) back story and its reveal is a good example of this. Most of all, I think this show might work particularly well for me because it involves characters who are at a similar stage in life. Lizzie’s impeding graduation, her fears about the job market, the way in which at times she’s not quite ready yet to take charge of her whole life, all ring very true to me. And then there’s Lydia’s story, which is now progressing on her own blog, and is very painful to watch because it has been updated in a manner that I think might hit very close to home for many girls who have experienced less-than-perfect loves. It is painful, and difficult, but I also find it extremely pertinent, well-addressed, and definitely very brave in this respect.

I could give you a lot MORE arguments why I enjoy this series so much, the first among whom would be a simple: just go watch it. The episodes are short (as it is in the format of a video blog most videos are around 5 minutes long), they are very entertaining, completely heartwarming, funny, and at the same time not afraid to tackle more serious issues. The fact that there are now over 80 episodes may seem daunting at first, but I admit I got hooked somewhere in the autumn and I caught up in a day and a half. Now, I struggle to keep patient for any new episode to appear. I am not afraid to admit that Monday’s and Thursday’s have become the highlights of my week.

Are you watching the Lizzie Bennet Diaries? Do you think you might start to? Are you as obsessed as me? (Please tell me I’m not alone!)

How blogging sometimes makes me hesitant to read…

Book blogging has always been about the learning experience for me. I started a blog one day to practice writing in English. Then, I slowly discovered book blogs and I loved how my knowledge about books and literary issues expanded. When people mention *cough* as some people recently did in real life *cough* how some hobbies distract from their career goals, I always smile and ignore them (while quietly seething inside), because I think if blogging has done anything for me, like reading in general does, it is sharpening my critical insights into certain issues.

Blogging, then, is a huge learning experience for me. Plus, it helps me realise how limited my own personal experiences are, and in that manner triggers a curiosity to look outside my own boundaries. Combined, these two have made me feel that blogging has been one of the most worthwhile additions to my life. It has also made me humble. I know that on the subjects of gender and ethnicity, for example, there are a huge number of bloggers more knowledgable than me. I love that I can learn so much through comments on my own posts (it has long been a blogging motto of mine that I am often still formulating opinions, only allowing myself to ask questions), or mostly by reading the well-rounded posts of others. However, at times it also leaves me overwhelmingly insecure with a tendency to question everything I want to write down. Which brings me to today’s subject:

I have noticed over the past months that I am often hesitant to pick up books that I know will make me think (not that any of the books I have read recently haven’t made me think), and that I will probably love, because I feel insecure about the thought that subsequent to reading said book, I will have to formulate an opinion about it. What bothers me even more is the fact that these are usually books on the very subjects I find so important. Power discourses, historical fiction set in colonial times, gender, ethnicity.. One of the reasons why I haven’t been doing very well on my Africa reading challenge is that next to persons such as Kinna or Amy, I would feel insecure about how I should feel about certain books, about how groups of people might be portrayed in said books, about what issues I should have signalled but will probably overlook, etcetera. I do not want to be bothered by such self-doubts, because the very idea of reading diversily, of reading on issues I find important but do not know a lot about, is that it is the perfect way to learn..

Hopefully by admitting this, I will give myself some leeway to explore literature without feeling too hesitant, ignorant, and insecure about the things I will undoubtedly encounter. I want to allow myself space to ask questions, to feel conflicted about which opinion to back, to perhaps post confusingly long paragraphs with different points of view because I feel I cannot decide yet. And so this is what I will attempt to do. Perhaps that means my blog will consist of navel-gazing sometimes (as if it doesn’t already – hah!) but I think these issues are important.

There is one thing I should note as well though, because I have noticed something over the past months that perhaps makes me feel less secure about exploring new horizons. Usually, comments on my post make me feel very grateful. They make me feel respected and understood, and even when critical, invite deeper conversation and discussion. As I have said I love to learn. I also realise I am a young blogger and reader compared to most other bloggers, and that I do not have the life experience and the knowledge of most of you. However, the fact that I am often puzzled by things, the fact that I express my insecurities, and might from now on do more of that, does not mean that I welcome comments that tell me exactly what and how to think, that basically assert authority without leaving room for fruitful discussion. I may be young and insecure and a little naive, but I am also a person and an adult. Again, in general my comments and my blog feel like a very secure environment for me, and I love to learn, I just want to do it in a polite manner. And please don’t feel like I’m talking about most of you, because I am not. I love you all. It’s just a once or twice encounter in the past months that has thrown a wrench in my overall blogging securities.

Now, to return to the actual subject: are you ever scared to read a book, while you know you will probably love it? Has blogging ever kept you from reading a book because you knew you would like to blog about it afterwards? How do you deal with that?

TVD 4×04: or, the fail of watching through a gender-lens

I was going to write another post today, but somehow I cannot get a word written. And the failure of the last episode of The Vampire Diaries keeps popping up in my head. I know a lot of the readers of this blog don’t watch this show. And I apologize for veering off-topic on my blog [then again, it is my blog]. I’ll have bookish posts again soon. I feel I just need to get this off my chest. Because.. you see, TVD is my guilty pleasure. And guilty pleasures are supposed to be fun. If they have you rolling your eyes, it should be a pleasant eye-roll. Instead, this week had me very very angry. So yeah.. After the cut you’ll find my TVD 4×04 thoughts. Obviously, the post contains spoilers for all seasons including this last episode.

Continue reading

Sunday Salon: On Authors, Series, and New Releases

On 27 September, a little over a week ago, The Casual Vacancy was released. The first novel by J.K. Rowling set outside the Harry Potter Universe. The book had been announced for months. Its cover, in itself, set people talking [I am one of those who does not like it much]. There was a build-up, and excitement, and everything that was to be expected of the author of possibly the biggest series in the world releasing a new book into the world. The puzzling thing is that this Harry Potter fangirl wasn’t all that excited.

It is not so much the setting, the story in itself, the sex or the strong language that made me feel mostly apathetic about this release. It wasn’t even the endless stream of “this is not Harry Potter” warnings and interviews and reviews popping up everywhere (although I do admit that after reading that for the third time, I sort of got the message). I like the idea that Rowling is exploring new waters. I like the idea that she’s writing again and willing to show it to the world despite the fact that she’s probably made enough money to never write again. So really.. Why did I care so little for The Casual Vacancy’s release? Why was I more apathetic than exited (which I feel I should have been)? Well, there’s the rub: I don’t really know.

This is what I have been pondering about the past 10 days. I’m not sure I have any answers, but I did come up with a possible suggestion as to the why – which only left me feeling more puzzled in the end.

Because here’s the thing: Perhaps my apathy really is a case of The Casual Vacancy not being a Harry Potter book. Now, you might think that that is no surprise in itself, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what you think I mean when I tell you that. You see, it’s not that I wanted her to write another Harry Potter book. I think the series is pretty perfect as it is. I’d be okay with there never being another Harry Potter book released, even though the idea that this series is over fills me with nostalgia. It’s the fact that Harry Potter is not equated with J.K. Rowling in my mind.

It was only on the book’s release date that I somehow came to the realisation that the quality of the Harry Potter series is really the quality of J.K. Rowling as a writer. Somehow, in my mind they always were somewhat separated. To the point where I might think to myself that Harry Potter means so much to me, its universe, its story, its characters, I love them all. But, somehow, that never made me think of Rowling as a favourite author, or an author whose writing I really enjoy for the writing in itself. This does not mean I do not appreciate her as a person, as much as the next one I like her interviews and I had tears in my eyes when she appeared at the premiere of the last Harry Potter movie.. It’s just that somehow I’ve never equated my love of Harry Potter with J.K. Rowling’s qualities as a writer. Undeservedly, I now realise. But it’s true nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy - JK RowlingIn a way this is a compliment, I think: it means the world of Harry Potter feels so real to me that I believe in it as a separate entity from the author. To some extent, I feel the same about Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy, with the difference that I’ve already read a book by him set in a separate universe which means I’m better at acknowledging his quality as an author as opposed to a single series. In a similar vein, it means The Casual Vacancy will be Rowling’s chance to convince me that she is a favourite author of mine, instead of the creator of a universe I love. That in itself is quite exciting, isn’t it? Perhaps this post will convince me to feel a little more anticipation for the book that’s currently lying on my desk in a reminder that it’s there, ready to be read. (Because yes, for all my apathy, I did pre-order it at the last minute).

I’m left to wonder if I’m alone in this. If when you say you have a favourite series, book, or author, the book(s) or the author takes priority? And if the books are more likely to take priority in case of a series, especially with authors who’ve written only one series to date? I somehow feel it was easier for me to decide Margo Lanagan was a favourite author based on the one book, Tender Morsels, I had read by her, than it is to acknowledge Rowling as a favourite despite my growing up with Harry Potter as one of my favourites stories ever, so much so that I felt justified in exclaiming on twitter that Harry Potter was my teenage life. Perhaps this is because a stand-alone book ultimately makes you accept in advance that it will be the beginning and end of the created setting, whereas that’s different with a series? Which leads to the question if this changes once an author has released more?  I don’t know, I’m just playing around with ideas here. In a way, series or books perhaps do not make a difference. Perhaps it’s really the idea of knowing an author can create separate worthwhile universes?

I really hope any of this makes sense.