Thursday, 15 March 2012

And for this I need a Masters degree?

The library where I work (aka "my library", even though I don't own it) was recently the grateful recipient of a Living Libraries grant, which allowed us to make some neccessary refurbishments, renovations and improvements to the building.

A few weeks ago, the Minister for Local Government, plus entourage, came to officially open the new facilities, and thus for two weeks beforehand we were engaged in a great deal of lifting, moving, taking shelves apart, and putting shelves together again.

It was very physical work, and not at all demanding of the sort of skills that are part of the Masters degree in Information Studies than I'm currently working on, one subject at a time, while working full time.  I remember, in fact, when I began working in libraries - after a very office-based profession for the previous four years - noting that librarianship was very definitely NOT a sedentary occupation.  But I'm not sure that I ever really expected it to be quite as unrelentingly physical as all that hammering shelves together (and taking them apart), and shifting books around.  At the end of the day before the opening I went home, arms, legs and back all aching from the work I'd been doing.

I was struck by a line in the textbook I had to get for my marketing class this semester - which only just arrived today - to the idea of having a marketing 'unit' within the library consisting of representatives from the various areas of the library.  We don't have enough people for that sort of thing, and yet our staff are always being reminded by the other library branches within our regional library organisation that we are the only branch with more than a single staff member on duty at any one time.  It's one of the oddities: being bigger than everyone else you deal with, but smaller than all the example libraries talked about in the research.

When you look at what a library staff member does in an average day, I guess I can see why people don't tend to think that we necessarily need a degree.  I mean, who needs a degree to put shelves together, or to refill the paper towel dispenser, or to change the toilet paper from the wrong way around in the dispenser to the right way (something I seem to be doing every day at the moment)?  And so many days are like that in a public library.

I know I'll have the days when I feel like I'm using the skills of my degree (once I've finished it).  I know my degree is giving me skills that will serve me well in the future.  I already have days when I know that I'm using the skills I've been given, that I've developed in my four years so far in libraries.

But when I'm bashing at shelves with a mallet, or putting together display sets with a universal set of Allan keys, I don't think that I can be entirely blamed for asking the question: "And for this I need a Masters degree?"

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Review: A Woman's War: The Exceptional Life Of Wilma Oram Young, AM

A Woman's War: The Exceptional Life Of Wilma Oram Young, Am
A Woman's War: The Exceptional Life Of Wilma Oram Young, AM by Barbara Angell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I accidentally left "Bad Faith" at work for the three-day weekend, and so hot on the heels of that review comes this one.

This review is probably the more scathing one. Sorry 'bout that.

This book is about a woman who is awesome. Who achieved an amazing amount in her life, and possibly the most amazing thing was that she survived the Japanese Prisoner of War camps along with her fellow army nurses. I don't want this review to take away from that at all.

This book is about a remarkable old biddy. However. She would hate me, and I doubt I'd be all that enamoured of her as a result. So there's that from the beginning. She's just far too much like my grandmother. (Odd that Keating's 1993 election win is mentioned negatively, and yet no mention is made of Howard's 1996/7 win. Suspect bias on the part of the author, but have not yet determined in which direction this suspected bias lies.)

Anyway. The first two sections of the book are fine. The first describes Wilma Orem (Young)'s childhood and training as a nurse; the second her time as an Army nurse and then as a prisoner of war; the third her life following her return to Australia after the war.

The second section is the most impressive and thought-provoking; in particular the gruesome yet matter of fact descriptions of war, violence and torture.

However the whole is negatively impacted by Angell's unimpressive writing; while the drama of the second section carries the reader along, in the first and third, the pedestrian nature of the writing makes the reading experience drag. The third section is particularly tedious: every ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, every reunion with her fellow-prisoners is described as 'particularly special'. I would have expected more from a writer with Angell's apparent credentials as a screenwriter and teacher of writing, but there was just so little energy once the prisoner-of-war section was over.

In sum: the story is important, and I value it. The presentation lets the story down, as does the confusion relating to the politicisation of Orem Young's later years (ie, why the mention of the Labor win but not the Liberal? Was that because the author wanted to emphasise or minimise the difference (or lack thereof) of Veterans policy between the governments of the two parties. As I said, I'm unsure.)

This past January I went to the Australian War Memorial's special exhibition on nurses in war. I also saw (briefly) some of the work done by the nurses in the PoW camps. What these women survived was amazing. I only wish that the book I just read had been more worthy of what they themselves went through.

(Betty Jeffrey's "White Coolies" is going on my To-Read shelf despite my automatic flinch at its title.)

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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Review: Bad Faith: A Story of Family and Fatherland. Carmen Callil

Bad Faith: A Story of Family and Fatherland. Carmen Callil
Bad Faith: A Story of Family and Fatherland. Carmen Callil by Carmen Callil

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An interesting read. In a "may you live in interesting times" kind of way.

Last year we went to see the movie "La Rafle", about the Vel d'Hiv' "round up" of French Jews during the Second World War. I bought this book a couple of years ago (because of the title, and because it's about the German occupation of France during WWII, and WWII is one of those things I always want to be learning more about), but only picked it up this year. I will also admit that it got more sustained attention from me because it is by a female author who identifies as Australian.

Things I learned from this book:
- a lot more about the legalities and practicalities of Vichy France (and the fact that the town of Vichy is still trying - and failing - to live down the fact that its name is forever associated with the technically ongoing identity of the French nation during WWII)
- between my previous read ("Fatal Silence"), this one, and the one I just borrowed from the library today ("Hunting Evil") I am in a really anti-Roman Catholic-Curia-during-WWII stage of existence
- not surprisingly, France under German occupation is a little more complex than 'Allo 'Allo. I certainly hadn't previously realised that the Germans essentially re-took control of the whole of France in 1942 prior to reading this book.
- theodicy (the problem of evil) forms a lot of my thought processes at the moment. Not just because of my reading (recent sermons are also an influence)
- the ugliness of the "cultural cringe" of Australians who left here in the 60s and have never really returned is not limited to celebrities such as Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, and Clive James.
- I *really* don't like generalisations about Tasmanians, even though I don't think I'd like the Jones family one little bit.

Downsides to the book:
- Callil generalises wildly about Australia. I object to this from someone who hasn't lived here since 1960.
- In a lot of ways its not enough about Anne. It's not even all that much about Anne's relationship with her father, or in fact about *family* at all. Which makes the title of the book rather misleading. I actually wish that the book had NOT been given the framing mechanism of Anne Darquier, because as interesting as it occasionally was, it meant that I wanted to know more of Anne's life, more of Anne's thoughts, than I had any chance to be given. I wish Callil had admitted from the beginning that this was a book almost entirely about Louis Darquier with only tangential references to his wife and daughter. If that had been the case, she might not have been so disparaging of Australia in general, into the bargain.

I really am trying not to be too mean about this book. After all, I learnt a lot from it, and I did finish it. I'm also trying not to react just to the clangers about Australia, but the problem was, they were in the first few chapters, and rang so false that they coloured my entire impression of the book.

Ultimately, I'm glad I only paid $5 for this book. It will probably stay in my collection, but more because it's about WWII than because I have any real intention of re-reading it in the future.

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Friday, 9 March 2012

IWD/The Stella Prize at Wodonga Library

Last night we had a fabulous time discussing the topic "Is women's writing different from men's" as part of ongoing discussions leading up to the establishment of the Stella Prize for women's writing in Australia.

The conversation was tweeted live by Karen Hempel, and can be viewed on Storify.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What is "chick lit" anyway?

Jane Green, Kerry Greenwood, Maggie Alderson, Jackie Collins, Sophie Kinsella, Jessica Rudd, Marian Keyes, Georgette Heyer, Cathy Kelly...

That's just a selection of authors mentioned by commenters to Natalia Jastrzab's Chick Lit post on yesterday.  I don't know that I'd put Greenwood, Collins or Heyer in the "chick lit" category, anyway, although I'm sure they have certain claims to the genre title.  (Personally, I'd put Greenwood in crime, Collins in romance and Heyer in either romance or crime depending on which she was writing.)

My own post from Saturday, "A quick post on genre titles" has garnered some conversation.  It was actually a post written rapidly on my telephone while we were out shopping, and as I thought about what it is we call the sort of books Anita Heiss writes.  You see, I've always said that Anita Heiss writes the only "chick lit" I've ever really enjoyed, and certainly the authors that were named in the Mamamia post are not authors I tend to read (although Jess Rudd's two books are TOTALLY on my to-read list.  On the other hand, I overdosed on Marian Keyes back when I was avoiding my honors thesis and now refuse to touch her work with a very large bargepole).

So, how do I define 'chick lit'?

The thing is, I'm not sure I define it at all.  When I look at my Goodreads shelves, I have the following 'sub' shelves relating directly to fiction:
  • Australian
  • Children's
  • Crime
  • Fantasy
  • Girlsown
  • Historical
  • Middle Grades
  • Religious
  • Sci-fi
  • Sexualities
  • Short stories
  • Steampunk
  • Young Adult
The only other purely fiction-related shelf I have is 'trashy trashy romance'.  ('Graphic novel' is mostly fiction, but some non-fiction.)  So "chick lit" hasn't been a category that I've personally wanted to use in classifying my reading.  (For the record, and all of the above are non-exclusive categories, YA "wins" with 86 titles, while Historical is at 81.  Australian and Children's also beat 'Trashy Trashy Romance'.  Total on the 'Fiction' shelf is 229, and mostly books don't get any of these labels until I've read them.)

I took a tour of the library shelves today in an attempt to sort out how I define chick lit. Elizabeth Berg - no. Alexandra Potter - probably. Sandra Brown - no. Jodi Picoult - no. Judy Nunn, Di Morrissey, Fiona McGregor - no, no and no. As for the yesses... Linda Francis Lee, Christine Jones, the usual suspects of Alderson, Green, Kinsella and Keyes, of course... Fiona Walker, I suppose.  When I think about it, for me it's all about the cover. There's a post on Dianne Blacklock's blog that shows the progression of cover designs for one of her books. It transitions nicely from pure chick lit to something that for me, isn't chick lit. Chick lit is brash colours, big print, and slightly cartoon-like pictures of women rather than photographs. Not-chick-lit is photographs, soft colours, and the sort of covers I now expect to see on a Jodi Picoult novel.  Now obviously this doesn't entirely work: if it did, I'd put Janet Evanovich in Chick Lit rather than Crime.  I don't particularly like the description of "women's fiction", (no one ever talks about "men's fiction"), but I tend to view chick lit as a subset of what might be termed 'women's fiction', along with romance, Mills and Boon (which is another whole subset of its own in my mind) and family saga.

And then I got to thinking about the point that there's no such thing as 'men's fiction' - and there isn't.  There's Thriller and Mystery and Western and Sci-Fi - and it made me wonder whether the problem of 'chick lit' and romance is more along the lines of the difference between Governor and Governess; between the image you get in your head of a male secretary (Sir Humphrey Appleby, permenant secretary) and a female secretary (Peggy Olson of Mad Men).  No matter what you call it, somehow the feminine version of the word will never sound as right or as powerful as the masculine version. We really are very well conditioned by society.

So maybe something like Juliet Madison's suggestion of "life lit" is what we need (except that the characters in these books never seem to lead lives that I recognise - they all have way more money than me for a start!).  Does "life lit" cover Rebecca Shaw as well as Jessica Rudd and Anita Heiss? 

I think I've only just begun my thinking processes about this genre labels thing.  When I have the time at work (which won't be until AFTER this week's International Women's Day/Stella Prize panel extravaganza that is now only - eek! - two days away), I think I'll go through some shelves and mentally assign genres to *everything*, and see how that pans out.

I think I just created a blog series.  Ooops?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A quick post on genre titles

In thinking about women's representation in the literary world - and the commercial world - we really badly need a better genre title than "chick lit". ("Commercial Women's Fiction" as Anita Heiss' work was described at Write Around the Murray last year, just doesn't quite cut it.)


ETA: So now there's a post about this on - well, not on the name of chick lit but whether one should feel ashamed of reading it.  Which, on the one hand I understand - I've written about my enjoyment of romance fiction, but not about the fact that my girlfriend has a tendency to tease me about every romance I read.  On the other, I've read girl's school stories on the Melbourne trams, without hiding the book cover.  I have little sympathy for the publication of "adult" covers for John Marsden's' "Tomorrow" series and the "Harry Potter" books.  I have a high tolerance for public comment on my reading tastes.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The fabulous Mrs Mac

We have a fabulous storytime program at our library. Mrs Mac worked in pre schools for close to twenty years before she came to the library, and seems to know pretty much everyone in our town.

Here's an example of her work:


A new book goes up every two weeks.  The vids are being used in one of the local Special Schools who don't have the money for a bus to get to story time themselves.  Mrs Mac gets hits from all over the world.

Mrs Mac had some fabulous news this morning...