True or False: Major Tom has to Take Vitamin Pills

The above is a question from a new English textbook I found today. The more retro-minded amongst you will perhaps recognise a reference to the lyrics of a pop song. The song is narrative-driven, which means it is a story song. I love music, and I am a stickler for good lyrics. This is in some ways problematic, in the sense that it means I hate many songs with a burning passion. Many writers of pop songs see lyrics as secondary, or, if not that, then they certainly commit violence against words and the English language to force them to fit the rhythm of a song. What this means is that songs can be great for language learning, but should not be taken as “gospel”, meaning that you should not believe them at all times to be examples of good grammar and idiomatic (natural) speech. When I used to teach English as a foreign language, I always used to have a mental list of such songs which I thought about putting into a blog, explaining the language used and abused in the songs, and how it ought to look. Very occasionally, I am able to see examples of such unnatural English as part of the charm of the song. Mostly though, I despise them, and try to escape from shops, restaurants, cafes and the like that play them, clasping my ears in pain.

Stories in songs suffer a similar fate, taking unlikely turns at times simply because of the unreasonable demands of an ill-chosen rhyme-scheme. (Rhyme has to be used very well in poetry and in song, for it to feel natural and unforced.)

When a good song tells a good story though, it is an example of a rare mastery, and has a power for those of us who love both music and narrative that is perhaps rare even from film and the written word. Just think how many times you may hear a song versus the number of times you might watch even a film you love, or read a story that moved you deeply.

The Books on My Desk / Floor / in My Bag #2

Ok, so in a first for Book Pusher, I’m now going to follow up the first post in a series with a number 2. Let’s have a look at another one of the books I am reading at the moment. Before I do that I should say that we all read in different ways, and I have been meaning for some time to write a series on reading habits, but the one of my own habits which is relevant here, is that I read several books at once: usually too many. Sometimes it may be relatively easy to ‘juggle’ books. Working through an exercise book is fine at the same time as reading a novel, for example. Sometimes it is more problematic. If you are reading too many books and not reading a novel regularly enough, for example, you may forget the character’s names and their traits and relationships with others. As I have written elsewhere, I have started a course in Czech literature recently, and have been doing lots of reading for it. The book I was reading before I started the course slipped down my priorities a little and it looked like it might stall entirely. The thing is, though, that, since many of the other teachers have seen me reading this book, and have asked to borrow it, I really should try to finish it sometime soon.

The_strangest_manThe Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo is a biography of genius physicist, Paul Dirac. The title comes from something one of Dirac’s fellow phycisists said of him. On first sight, he was pretty odd in many ways. As is often the case, though, this first impression ‘take’ on things may be misleading. I see Dirac as pretty normal, albeit normal for that sub-group of people who have autism, specifically perhaps a type of high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s syndrome. The link between Asperger’s syndrome and certain types of genius is thought to be so strong that one of the main characters in a series about physicists (and a couple of engineers), The Big Bang Theory, has asperger’s syndrome.

I used to work with children and young adults with asperger’s syndrome and other neuro-developmental conditions, so Paul Dirac’s behaviour is not as strange to me as it is may appear to many people.

Still, strange or otherwise, Paul Dirac is a fascinating character, and the world of physics in the nineteen thirties in particular is incredible. If it may be true that “nobody understands quantum physics” as one of its most colourful characters, Richard Feynman, once notoriously said, it is one of those subjects that always repays trying to ‘get your head around’, as we say in English. Most of those at school will be too young to try to do this yet, but put it on a long-term to do list in your head. You won’t be disappointed.

The first two books in this series have been exceptionally nerdy. I have been getting back in touch with my inner geek over the last few months. I do hope, however, to share with you here some of the fiction books I am reading. Of course, many of these will be adult books which I will hold back from sharing on a school library blog, but I do tend to make an effort to read the books we stock as well so that I can better recommend them, and, of course, not all of the adult books I read are inappropriate.

(Ten housepoints to the first student who guesses two teachers who have asked to borrow this book, by the way.)

The Books on my Desk / Floor / in my Bag #1

Ok, another foolhardy attempt to start a series I may not be completely consistent in pursuing. It is great, I think, for you to see that I and your teachers are reading and using books in a variety of ways. I am here to inspire you to read, and this is one of the most direct ways of doing so.

Today I will start with a book that might not have occurred to you as being of interest to me, although it is true that some of those students who spoke to yesterday while I was simultaneously customising two new iMacs might not be entirely surprised.

lrg

As a kid, I did quite a lot of programming (sometimes we say coding) on a computer that will look almost as ancient to many of you as the typewriter I have in the school library.

BBC_master

I grew out of this, as they say, and, though I would later play around with HTML and remained computer-literate, I did not, for years, get much more technical than using word processors, web browsers, and, occasionally, image manipulation programs. I was competent, and people would often ask for my help with computers, but I did not get involved with what goes on underneath the level of the windows, icons and menu systems of the operating system.

Sometime last summer, this changed, and I became once again borderline obsessed with fiddling with a programming language called Python. This book, above, is a great textbook for using with the language, and I have been dipping in and out of now since Christmas, when my brother ordered it for me.

That is one of the many books I am using, as opposed to simply reading, at the moment.

 

Crowd-funding Czech comics

I have written about both crowd-funding and Czech comics before, so I will keep this one relatively brief. When I first came back to Prague around 18 months ago, I took to reading every Czech comic I could get my hands on. I have since donated a few to the library. This habit of mine turned into something of an obsession following a visit to an exhibition on Czech comics at Dox in the summer of 2013. How this came about is perhaps interesting, and explains some of the reasons I have been keen to use Twitter at school.

One of my friends, somebody I know through Twitter and Flickr, tweeted me (ie. wrote a post on Twitter) to say that a comic artist she follows would be visiting Prague and hoped to meet some comic artists while she was here. She asked if I could recommend anywhere. A quick internet search threw up a handful of decent shops that stock comics, and the exhibition at Dox. We met up and went. The artist, Lizz Lunney, lives in Birmingham near where I am from, and some of the work she gave me is now hanging in the library (the long laminated strips were originally small booklets she uses to publicise her work).

Anyway, while I was looking into the various possibilities of meeting up with comics artists, I wrote to a few – again, through Twitter – and got into a Twitter, and then an e-mail exchange with a Czech comics artist called @Vhrsti (I am giving his name here as a Twitter handle ie. nickname, the convention for which is to write a “@” before the handle). Vhrsti was very helpful in writing to other artists and offering to meet up, and indeed, when it turned out few could make it in such short notice, went as far as to invite Lizz and myself to his house outside of Prague to look at his work.

Understandably, Lizz was a little wary of an invitation to meet two strange men in a small village outside of a city she didn’t know in a country whose language she didn’t speak (I am using ‘strange’ here in the sense of unknown, though I would be equally relaxed about self-applying the other sense of the word; far too few people are individual, let alone eccentric these days). We didn’t go, then, in the end, but I remembered how helpful Vhrsti had been and, when I saw his name come up on a crowd-funding site the other day, I had to click through and take a look.

Tak_uz_jsem_tady

A recap. Crowd-funding is a system of funding cultural projects and other things which might not otherwise get the financial backing they deserve. It is important, to my mind, to remember that just because something is worthwhile and would deserve our attention, doesn’t mean that it has a chance of first securing the attention of the people in the mainstream who are in a position to help it on its way to existence. Publishers, film studios, record companies, all have their own preferences, and often favour those artifacts which are likely to reach the widest possible audience. Too often, this means that books, films, records, and computer games or programs, to take the most obvious examples, are the cultural equivalents of a McDonalds Happy Meal – an easy fix for a given hunger or craving, but with little, even perhaps negative sustenance, that is, content that will benefit us in the long run.

Crowd-funding turns things around a little bit. It means, in essence, that we pre-order a given cultural item before it even exists; we pay for it to help it on its way to existence. Typically, we make a donation through a crowd-funding site, that will be refunded to us if the project does not reach the funding goal that will get it off the ground.

Too often, I am a rather passive supporter of crowd-funding projects. I tend to take a look, tweet about it, bookmark it, and wait until I have a little more money in the bank to support them. This time, I thought it would be nice to support the Czech publishing industry in whatever small way I could by making a donation. I clicked the button marked “Dvě knihy s obrázkem a věnováním” and gave some of my hard-earned.

I look forward to seeing the book I hope will reach its funding goal and make it into the shops, and I look forward to having played that small part. I hope some of you will consider doing the same in the future, taking a proactive role in shaping the culture around you rather than being what it is too easy to be, a passive consumer of cultural products other people have decided ought to be good enough for us.

A librarian reads the news: women in video games

There has been a real stink over the last few days over the subject of female characters in video games. How should this be of interest to us here on a library blog you may ask? Well, for more than one reason, as I hope to demonstrate. Firstly, I interpret the role of librarian quite broadly, and strongly believe that a library must work to improve its users’ critical skills. People who visit libraries regularly are, in my opinion, much better than those who do not, at understanding the different sides of a story (it is said there are two sides to a story, but in reality, there are usually many more). The news is, of course, nothing more or less than a collection of stories; stories which have been chosen in preference to others, and stories which have been told in one way rather than another, formed, as every story is, by a series of choices made by the author. Given this fact, I think that practically any big news story is fair game for being presented here so that you may practice upon it your skills of interpreting stories, asking how they are being told, why they are being told, and, in whose interest they are being told. Secondly, though, video games are very often now driven by narrative, that is, by stories plain and simple, and these stories shape people’s understanding of reality as powerfully as any other form of stories have throughout history.

So, why the stink? Well, it seems that though video games are as contemporary, as ‘now’, as twenty first century as anything you can probably think of, so too are they very last century in other ways. As science fiction writer William Gibson says, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In this case, even within a single industry, two mind-states, one backwards-looking and the other forward-looking, can co-exist.

If you were to take an in-depth look at the books in the library, indeed, in any library, separating them into piles by publishing date, earlier at one side of the room, later at the other, you would find that women and girls feature less at the older end of the room. This would be clear from the titles, from the artwork, and certainly from inside the pages themselves. Not only this, but women’s roles in those older books would be smaller, less active, and girls and women would, increasingly as you go back in time, be there to support those more active boys and men, the heroes of the books. Often, in the older books, the women would be the ‘prize’ of the men fighting monsters real and metaphorical.

Now, to refer to Gibson’s words again, the future is not evenly distributed, and though you will find some great books with some great female heroes as you get to the most recent books in the library, so too would you find books with women given only supporting roles. This trend is still around. I am very much aware as a librarian that girls in my library read books about boys much more often than boys read books about girls (you really ought to try that sometimes by the way, boys, you might learn something).

Books do better than film, it has to be said. Women in film are too often still there to look pretty, and too often are there to be ‘won’ as the prize for the boys who literally fight for them.

This problem in film is so bad that author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a scene in a graphic novel that outlines what has come to be called the Bechdel test. A film passes the test if it has a scene where two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. A pretty simple test, you might think. But it is incredible how few successful films pass it.

But if films are bad, video games are much worse, and this is where it has turned ugly over the last few days.

You’ll hear the word feminist sometimes. Words, like stories, can be used, and they can be abused, and this is one that has sometimes be abused. A feminist is somebody (male or female), who believes that women are not shown the same respect, and do not have the same rights and freedoms as do men, and who believes that this is wrong and should be changed. One such feminist recently produced a series of videos about video games and demonstrated, using tens if not hundreds of examples, that video games barely ever have powerful female characters. Instead, women in video games are shown to be passive. They are fought over. Usually, they are shown to be in need of the help of powerful men. Very often, they are kidnapped.

The videos make for worrying viewing, but are entertaining and informative. The feminist in question is not ‘bashing’ (criticising) men. Neither is she ‘bashing’ video games. She loves video games and has played them since she was a kid. But she thinks it is very sad that she usually cannot play these games as a strong female character, and she thinks it is sad that computer games can be, at one and the same time, so cutting edge, and so backward.

Sadly, the reaction to her videos has been rude at best, threatening at worst. She has been forced to leave her home to stay safe. All for expressing her opinion in an intelligent and entertaining way.

Here, as I hope to do with any later pieces I may write about current affairs, I would like to ask what you think about some of this. Why are female characters so often forgotten, added in almost as a second thought, or given such rubbishy parts to play? Why should films be worse than books (if indeed you agree that they are)? Why should video games come in last place? Why should there be such a nasty reaction to this being pointed out? Finally, what are your own experiences?

Bookmooch

I started reading one of the books in the new order the other day. Called Johnny and the Bomb it is written by Terry Pratchett, best known for the Discworld fantasy novels, and involves time travel, though I haven’t got far enough into it to see much of that and I am doing my usual trick of reading several books at once so may not get much further.

The book is pretty funny, but will be pretty difficult for most of my students to read. It is not so much that it involves difficult grammar or difficult words in and of themselves. Most of the time it doesn’t. It is more that every now and again it contain a lot of British spoken language, and also a lot of British cultural references – things that we Brits will know and may find funny but which nobody else will understand quite so well. For these reasons it was one of those books that is hard to categorise using the system I have designed for the school to rate reading difficulty and target age. I started out with something like a ‘4e’, the ‘4’ being the youngest class I thought could understand the contents of the story, the motivations of the characters and the like, and the ‘e’ representing a level of difficulty rated, for the most part, from ‘a’ to ‘j’ (essentially 1 to 10, with letters used instead of numbers to keep the two levels clearly separate). After reading on, and finding one or two more of these difficult passages, I moved this up to a ‘5g’. I know from my own experience that a funny book is rarely funny if you have to look up a dictionary all the time and you are still sure you are missing half of it.

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 20.37.53At the same kind of time I was reading this book on and off, I happened to log in to Bookmooch, a book swapping service I use from time to time. Now, I have talked about swapping books before, and I have done that physically most recently, taking books from the community libraries that are dotted around Prague. I did it again yesterday, taking a few books including some travel writing by Eda Kriseová and the three volumes of Bratrstvo by Alois Jirásek, one of the Czech writers our lucky Czech students will certainly have to learn about for their Maturita exams. This time it was a different community library – I am currently at a colleague’s place looking after their cats – and it seems that this one attracts the attentions of lots of Antikvariát owners filling up large bags of all the decent books and leaving nothing in return, which reminds me, I must do another book deposit myself! Anyway, Bookmooch is the same kind of thing, but on-line. I first took a look to see if there were any Fighting Fantasy books. These are books I read as a kid, and in which, you can act out the role of your character making choices (and fighting monsters) as you go. These are great books in a lot of ways – good bad books at least – and I will try to track them down at some point. In fact, what I did find out, was that the books are making something of a comeback and that a second generation of these kind of books has been released which can be read, and played, on computer, something like the interactive fiction I have been writing about. Anyway, looking for these, I came across something else which was of interest. (It is funny how often you find that when you are making a little bit of effort looking into one thing, you find something else which is equally interesting, and equally useful.) Having found a couple of Fighting Fantasy Books, but none in countries close enough that people were willing to post them, I searched for books in the Czech Republic. What I found was Johnny a Bomba by Terry Pratchett, which even our non-Czech-speakers can probably work out is Johnny and the Bomb. And so it should be being posted to me sometime soon-ish, and Czech speakers who would be somewhat thrown by the English version will be able to read it in the library next year. I will try to take a look over it when I receive it and let you know how the translator tackled some of those tricky phrases etc.

A Wizard of Earthsea / Čaroděj Zeměmoří – Ursula K. Le Guin

The first book to be looked at by Park Lane Book Club. According to Wikipedia ‘In 1987, Locus ranked A Wizard of Earthsea number three among the 33 “All-Time Best Fantasy Novels”‘. The novel has won several awards including a Lewis Carrol Shelf Award.

I had heard a great deal about Ursula Le Guin both for her fiction, and the philosophy and political thought she expressed in it, but I had not read her work and I am not very familiar with either fantasy or science fiction, the two genres that best describe most of her writing.

I chose this novel, thinking it might be a good level for years five and six, and possibly even the better readers of year four. It was late in the term and setting up the library blog and the busy last few weeks of term meant that I was a little too late to get any of our students on board with the book club. This first will be a road test, then, with two passionate readers whose knowledge of fantasy will undoubtedly put mine to shame. Still, with Clara and Annegret both being German and reading the book in English, and with myself being English and reading it in Czech from the 3rd or 4th chapter when I got my hands on the Czech translation from the library, this remains an international book club in some ways at least.

I hope over the next couple of weeks that we might throw back and forth a few ideas about the book and work out a kind of shape for the book club that both those at Park Lane and outside of it can use and abuse in future virtual get-togethers.

I’ll be writing a few of my thoughts here, but this is not about me and what I think. I will not be coming here or suggesting books to be discussed to tell children or others how to read them or what meaning to take from them. Nor will I be leading the discussions. In fact, for that reason it is great that the first book we will be discussing is in a genre I am not familiar with and have tended to resist reading. I would like everybody to be able to throw around ideas, questions and interpretations, and I am looking forward to learning from Anne and Clara this time, and from, I hope, more people and some of Park Lane’s own children in future discussions.

But it’s time for me to go to work so I’ll leave it there for the moment and check back in later to see where the book, its hero Ged, and its author Le Guin, will take us.

* * *

I originally posted the above on LibraryThing.com hoping to have something called a forum, an on-line system for allowing people to have these kind of conversations, often sorted into different ‘threads’. For us these threads might be ‘plot’, ‘language’ and ‘characters’, for example. Unfortunately, LibraryThing only allows children over 13 to join. I should have thought of this, but I didn’t, so we are back here for now. Later (perhaps much later), I may be able to change this website, hosting it, meaning storing it, on the computers and the internet ‘server’ at work, instead of at the computers at WordPress. By doing this, I should be able to set up a Park Lane forum that is on the internet and visible to all, but safe.