book review: the bone clocks

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s new novel about a woman named Holly Sykes and the strange life she gets caught up in living. It does the excellent David Mitchelly thing of having multiple sections which are their own stories in their own specific times (though this one, unlike Cloud Atlas, does keep marching into the future).

I liked the story as it built from a literary-feeling mundane story into a pretty gonzo sci-fi spectacle. Holly Sykes is in every part and she’s great, but she’s not the narrator or even a main character in many of the sections, which is kind of what I really liked about the novel. It bounces around with a bunch of different perspectives (which are not as extremely different as the different styles in number9dream) that to me make it feel like it’s trying to capture the multiplicity of life. The book’s always about Holly even if we’re in the heads of her less than immaculate friends and lovers.

There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but they were more on the loose ends side of things. The final section was longer than it probably needed to be but it was also the most affecting part of the whole experience. That might be because it was the furthest into the future and the most sfnal. I can see how you could call it preachy, but I think that fits the narrator at that point.

So yes, I liked it. It’s a bit weirder than The Thousand Autumns of Jacon de Zoet, but Mitchell knows how to write characters you’ll really care for (in the midst of weird scifiishness).

Alice in Wonderland by Nicholas Jones http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholasjones/5032232903/ Used under a CC-BY-2.0 license

stranger in a strange land children’s literature conference recap

I hadn’t been on an organizing committee before last year, when I joined up to be the Website Coordinator for the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference. It was kind of a funny situation, since I was in Australia when I signed up, but being the web person meant I could do all my work remotely anyway. I set up the website, found us a Creative Commons licensed graphic to use, got the web registration forms set up to work with the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable PayPal account, and generally made things accessible to the internet. It worked pretty well. I also did some techy stuff at the conference, helping to make sure people’s presentations worked okay.

On a more personal note, at the conference I presented my first paper. It’s called Unreliable Instructions and I made the slides for my presentation public. We only had fifteen minutes to present our work, so I had to bail out before I reached the “librarians have to change the world!” bits, but it went okay. I tend to have more passion than clarity when I’m presenting something to people, especially if there’s a time limit and I’m not being asked questions. I need to know what the audience gets and what they’re confused by so I don’t waste words explaining what everyone knows. Nobody asked any questions in the session, since my critical literacy stuff ended up being much less practical or theoretical than the other presenters. I was primarily talking about stories by China Mieville and Terry Pratchett and how they encourage critical literacy.

My favourite part of the conference was actually afterwards talking about YA books with one of the Creative Writing presenters. We talked about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Ship Breaker and man, reader advisory is my favourite thing in the world.

Happily, I get to use that love next week at the BCLA conference, where I’ll be on the “Ain’t on the Globe and Mail Bestseller List” panel. We’ll be talking about books that don’t get much attention from libraries. That’s restricted to 90 seconds per book, which suits my presentation style quite well. I’ll be presenting indie comics and games, because that’s the kind of thing I do. It should be fun and it’s cool that Shirley thought of me for it.

book review: denied to the enemy

Dennis Detwiller’s Denied to the Enemy is a Cthulhu mythos novel set in World War 2 and early operations with the organization that came to be known as Delta Green (in a fictional universe – DG isn’t real).

This book takes place in 1942-43 and jumps between a lot of viewpoint characters. These are mostly the heroes but a few interludes in the heads of members of the alien Great Race who’re travelling through time, trying to manipulate the forces of human history for their own benefit.

The book starts with a sympathetic Nazi officer who gets pulled into one of his compatriot’s occult schemes. His partner is sacrificing jews and communists to creatures from under the sea to try and negotiate some sort of alliance to destroy Allied shipping. This isn’t such a bad thing but the creatures are very clear they need females to mate with, which would betray their racial purity ideals quite severely. The Nazi gets information about another Nazi project called Thule to the Americans who come in and blow the whole human sacrifice camp up good. The Nazi dies.

Then we’re mostly with an American who’s trying to figure out this Thule mystery. There are other agents involved and they go to Miskatonic University. There are also scenes in Burma, Australia and the Belgian Congo. A lot of people die.

It’s a good story (I think it’s much better than Detwiller’s Through a Glass, Darkly, but I’m not entirely sure why). The jumping around from person to person makes it a story that feels bigger than one person, or even a handful of people. It’s in the middle of a glabal conflict that the aliens see as insignificant except when it interferes with their plans. It’s all very Lovecraftian (a bit more pulpy than he would have written, I grant) and though the universe doesn’t give a shit about anyone involved, you’ve also got to keep an eye on the people.

This is probably my best recommendation for someone looking for Mythos fiction written without all the racism that makes HPL so problematic.

ifla indigenous knowledges conference response/reflection

I got to attend the IFLA Indigenous Knowledges Conference because of the research project I’m working on about IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), and there was a lot of good stuff.

One of the big issues I find myself thinking hard about when thinking about aboriginal information issues and especially Traditional Knowledge is the notion that there’s some information that people just shouldn’t see (because it’s sacred stuff, and if you aren’t a priest you don’t have the proper context, to simplify it down a lot). Not being religious and being a Creative Commons/Open Access loving kind of guy, my hackles go up at the idea that communities would obstruct the free flow of information I see librarians as being instrumental in (I commented on this a little bit last year after attending a colloquium on Digital Repatriation). But I’m also a big fan of Community-Led Library issues, learning from the communities you’re serving instead of coming in with solutions in search of problems (the whole “improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” new librarianship deal works really well in this context). So I came into this conference ready to learn stuff that we don’t talk a lot about in our more traditionally focused courses.

And learn stuff I did.

Val Napoleon talked about the way oral cultures and knowledge representation is gaining legitimacy in the Canadian legal system as law, not just a cultural artifact. She also talked about how lofty principles are kind of meaningless without application and consultation. Community Consultation and Informed Prior Consent were recurrent themes throughout the two days.

Another recurrent theme was the situation of knowledge in place. This is one of those ideas that’s completely foreign to me. I don’t have any deep connection with any place, and for me the digital future is interesting because of its disconnection from a location, that I can go anywhere and bring all my stories with me. But that’s not the only way to think of things. Recordings are a crutch and they separate the stories from the people and without stories you become the walking dead, said Cry Rock, a video that was presented.

On Friday afternoon people were talking about indigenous training methods and indigenous subject heading and knowledge organization which was very interesting, but a bit annoying that the guy on the panel spoke about his (admittedly neat) online dictionary for as long as the three women did combined. On Twitter I referred to him as a white guy, but that was an assumption on my part, since I didn’t hear how he self-identified. The self-identification of where everyone was from and who they were was fascinating throughout the conference. And the thanking of the Musqueam nation for hosting the conference on their unceded land. I can’t remember ever hearing that kind of acknowledgment of land issues back in Winnipeg, but it happens a lot at UBC and did in Sydney too.

Oh, thinking of Sydney, on Saturday Alana Garwood-Houng was talking about Traditional Knowledge and copyright issues in regards to WIPO, but while there were some good things happening in that realm, there are also terrible human rights abuses going on in the Northern Territory. It was an emotional issue (check Stand for Freedom for the video she showed us) and she stressed that protecting cultural knowledge is important but protecting people and their human rights needs to come first.

I’m going to give my favourite part of the conference its own post, but in general, that was my experience with it. There were some boring parts, and I think IFLA missed the point of conversation about intellectual property issues in its Guiding Principles document they presented. Grand Chief Ed John called them out on their “respect for human rights so long as… access to information is unimpeded.” I’m all for access to information (remember, I’m a CC-loving info-sharing librarian) but I think serving the community has to come first. Harald von Hielmcrone did say there’s no human right to look through someone’s private papers, but the Guiding Principles bury that sentiment (if it’s there) in bureaucratically hellish clauses and doublespeak. I am not a fan of policy documents, I guess.

I am a fan of this conference and the information I came away with. I didn’t network as much as I should, but I was tweeting and taking notes. Hopefully this response was useful. It was only the first conference of a bunch this summer, so expect more of these writeups. I hope the rest will spark such cool shifts in perspective.

currently in use

penultimate semester complete

I am perilously close to being done my library-student career and getting back to full-on librarianhood (I’m of the opinion that being a librarian isn’t contingent on having a specific degree, but YMMV).

Today I handed in my last paper of the term. It was a really fun one to write because I incorporated analysis of children’s literature and its repressive/educative nature and the kind of books that fight that sort of thing. It’s probably a little more polemical than it strictly needed to be, but I prefer writing with something to defend. I’ll be presenting this paper (after I get it back and incorporate Judi’s edits) at the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference in a couple of weeks.

I had a very good semester. My courses were fun and informative (even the management course). I have heaps of classic Children’s Literature bibliographies to be working from when I’m in Children’s Departments. My class on Youth Services was supremely interesting and I feel I got a lot of background to dealing with Young Adults, and maybe more importantly learned who to be reading in the professional literature to do a good job working in that kind of role in the future. Also, I got to make my book trailer, which A.S. King linked to on her blog, so that’s a few kinds of cool.

The other thing I did today was go to a talk on Youth Community Informatics by Bertram Chip Bruce. It was an interesting talk about education being difficult to study as part of a community, even though it’s integral to community. Community informatics got some cautionary notes about how putting the technology first can ignore the critical dialogues that need to be taking place in a democracy. They did some interesting projects like helping with Community Asset Mapping for a Chicago neighbourhood that cab-drivers won’t take you to. But my favourite takeaway from the talk was this idea of Community as Curriculum, which states that people need to:

  1. learn about the world in a connected way
  2. learn how to act responsibly in the world
  3. learn how to transform the world – to give back to the community

I don’t think of myself as an educator or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I can see myself being a part of in the library world. I’ve decided that YA services are probably where I want to be working, which is a good thing to have figured out as I start looking for jobs. I’m planning on using skills I learned in my cataloguing, instructional role and social media courses, and I’m definitely not sorry I went to Australia and got some Systems Librarian experience, but YA services feel like they’re where I’d do my best work, and actually be helping to transform the world. Maybe not as much as a teacher, but in a role much more suited to me.

And there we go, my reflections on my semester. I have two-and-a-third more courses to finish by the end of August. Hopefully I’ll be able to find work for when I’m done.

book review: prochownik’s dream

I can’t remember exactly the last time I read a book like Alex Miller’s Prochownik’s Dream. It’s in the literary fiction genre, where relationships are so tenuous and delicate and there’s nary a second moon to be seen.

Toni is an artist, supported by his wife. He hasn’t painted since his father died, instead doing installations that pass without comment. The book opens with him envying his 4 year old daughter’s confident line in her unskilled crayon drawings, wishing he could do something again.

Then old artist friends return to Melbourne from Sydney and he begins painting again, inspired. The book is about how an artist doing what he is meant to do doesn’t necessarily have a good effect on those around him.

I was impressed with the language used in the book. Miller talks about painting in a way that makes Toni’s passions make sense. Also, so many of the cheap and easy ways to deal with the conflicts set up in the book are deftly avoided, as are the clean resolutions. I really liked this, and it was my first real bit of Australian literary fiction wile I lived in the country. Thanks to Rob, my coworker at Prosentient, for the going away present.

book review: ready player one

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.

The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)

Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.

So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).

As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.