Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Radiance by Grace Draven #review

Title: Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)
Author: Grace Draven, 2014

Okay, it’s rare that Amazon actually gets it right when it makes suggestions of books it *thinks* I’d like to read, but this was possibly the first time that I clicked through on one of those mailers and found something that I really, really enjoyed.

Is this book perfect? Is it on the same tier as the likes of Jacqueline Carey and Storm Constantine? Not quite, but for me that didn’t matter. What I loved was the setting, and the tentative and growing love between the two basically nice people – Idiko and Brishen – who make the best out of an arranged marriage.

All too often we read about arranged marriages that begin with a huge pile of antagonism and frustration for both parties. Not so with these two. If the ease of their growing love for one another bothers you, then this isn’t your book.

While I felt as if the first 60 to 80 percent of this book was mostly scene-setting, it was the sort of establishment of the world that I enjoy. I *like* slowly growing sagas. I must admit that I felt Brishen’s self-control with regard to being in bed with his wife without acting on his, erm, manly impulses a bit difficult to believe at times, but yeah, that being said, it may be the fact that I’ve been editing dubcon that’s made me a bit of a jaded reader.

This book is sweet, but it’s not without its claws. The non-human race portrayed in this book (the Kai) are not cuddly, and their actions are quite bloody at times. They also make a lovely shift from vampires, elves or angels (I’d peg them as somewhat toothy, predatory elves that don’t like going out during the day.) The human Ildiko may be soft and gentle on the outside but she has nerves of steel, and adapts quickly to her new people. By the end of the book, she’s a force to be reckoned with – while retaining her feminine qualities.

The interaction between the two characters is touching, and the dialogue even gave me the quiet chuckles from time to time. By the time I was done, I immediately rushed off to Amazon to pick up book two, but I now realise I’ll have to wait a bit. Draven has created a sweet, sensual fantasy with lashings of romance, that have proved to perfectly complement my usual fare of GrimDark. Love, love, love – and I need more. And soon. Hell, I’m willing to beta read even so long as I can get the next instalment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Journey to the Underworld: there and back again

The vast body of works that make up the body of the Greek myths often offer dramatic conflicts, but it can be argued that perhaps the most challenging quest that any of the Greek heroes (and gods) had to undertake, was the journey into the Underworld, the domain of Hades, the god of the dead – a location that proved terrifying and inescapable to both mortal and immortal alike, as can be seen in the tales of Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, Herakles, and Odysseus.

Rape of Persephone by Rembrandt
Picture: Wiki Commons
These myths can be interpreted in various ways, including physical and moral allegory, and their functions can be seen as social, historical, ritual, psychological and existential, depending on who it is who’s doing the interpretation, and what their intent is. (Greek Mythology in Context: 9-13) To consider that the myths possess only one hard-and-fast interpretation is to lose sight of their plurality, and, ultimately, their legacy of fluid meaning, as each storyteller is wont to place his or her own spin on a particular tale. (And unlike the Judeo-Christian religions, ancient Greek religions were not constrained by the establishment of dogma in the form of enduring holy scriptures.) Varying accounts existed, as can see by the differences between Hesiod’s Theogony (Buxton: 44-48), the Homeric Hymns (Buxton: 49) and Orphic poetry (Buxton: 52).

The gloomy domain of Hades, according to Greek myths, where the souls of the dead – be they hero or commoner – went after death, was not a happy place; many of the dead suffered often gruesome punishment for how they behaved during life, for instance Tityos having his liver continuously pecked out by vultures (for having attempted to rape Leto). (Buxton: 208) One would have to be made of stern stuff to brave this grim realm and its denizens.

Persephone was the daughter of the gods Demeter and Zeus, and was beloved of her mother. Demeter was understandably grief-stricken when Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone with the view of making her his wife. Persephone herself was also filled with sorrow at her enforced marriage, and this state of affairs also had dire consequences for the world when Demeter became derelict in her divine duties. The world became barren, and the natural order was thrown out of kilter while Demeter searched for her daughter.

Yet the story of Persephone’s eventual return does tie in with a ritualistic interpretation of the myth. According to the tales, Demeter, disguised as an old woman, served the family of the king of Eleusis as nursemaid, and through her interaction (and eventual revelation of her true identity) founded a temple where her adherents were instructed in sacred rites and ceremonies linked to her worship. These are known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rites that may have related to immortality and rebirth.

One of the conditions of Persephone’s confinement to Hades was that if she (or any other immortal, for that matter) tasted food while she was there, she would have to remain forever. Though Hades eventually agreed to let Persephone return to her mother, Persephone had thoughtlessly consumed six pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, and a compromise had to be reached; consequently, for six months of the year, she could be with the gods above, and for the remainder, she had to return to her husband’s side. (Berens: 39-44)

The myth itself as aetiological function with regard to the origin of the seasons, but also takes on deeply religious significance in an hope for a better afterlife, as can be seen by the establishment of a doctrine related to life after death (the Eleusinian Mysteries). Through adherence to the mysteries, ordinary Greeks could aspire to happiness after death.

Death acting as a separator, is a theme prevalent in the myth of Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. Orpheus was a poet and was also viewed as the origin of the Orphic Mysteries, which offered hope of salvation to ordinary Greeks who wished for a better afterlife. (Buxton: 213)
After all, with so many myths spelling a future of doom, Hades was a place to be feared.

When Orpheus’ wife Eurydice was fatally bitten by a snake, he was filled with such sorrow that armed with his lyre, he braved Hades’ realm in order to win back his love. So moved were Hades and Persephone by Orpheus’ performance that they allowed him to return to the world above with his wife. Once again, a condition was applied to this boon: Orpheus was not to look upon Eurydice until he’d left Hades’ domain. As myths are wont to deal in tragedy, Orpheus was unable to prevent himself from looking upon his beloved before they reached the upper world, and she was swallowed up by the shadows, leaving Orpheus to succumb to an equally tragic fate when he was eventually torn apart by maenads. (Berens: 65)

Whereas the divine Demeter and Persephone enjoyed partial success in their endeavours to circumvent the power of Hades, the mortal Orpheus and Eurydice failed, undone by the depth of Orpheus’ passion. Perhaps here I could suggest that even love alone is not strong enough to overpower the finality of death, and those who don’t follow the conditions laid out by Hades to the letter, will pay the consequences.

The Underworld was not only populated by the shades of the dead, but also contained frightening creatures such as dread Kerberos, a monstrous, three-headed dog with a venomous bite. The hair on its head and back consisted of poisonous snakes and it had the hindquarters of a dragon and a serpent for a tail – quite a formidable beast to encounter. (Berens: 192)

And it was Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene, who had the wherewithal to tangle with Kerberos when he completed his epic Twelve Labours in order to free himself of his services to Eurystheus (Herakles was doing penance for having killed his own children). (Berens: 191) This final task laid upon him encompassed bringing up Kerberos from the Underworld – a task suited only to those who were graced with heroic strength, as Herakles would go on to prove yet again.

However, Herakles did not go into this without preparation; he underwent initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and after his enlightenment, he was ready to be guided by Hermes into the domain of Hades. Once he’d descended to the lower realm, he was merciless and was ready to slay Medusa (though Hermes requested that he refrain from doing so). Apart from his primary task involving the hellhound, he took it upon himself to free Theseus but was unable to help Pirithous. Hades gave Herakles permission to bring Kerberos to the upper world, but only if he were physically capable of doing so. Not one to be held back by tests of his physical prowess, Herakles went on to prove that he was perfectly capable of the task, despite Kerberos putting up a struggle and biting Herakles for his efforts. Thus Herakles’ labours were ended and he was free.

In this case, I view Herakles’ descent into the Underworld as a task its giver was almost certain would doom the hero to failure, especially viewed within the context of how Persephone and Orpheus were not wholly able to succeed in their bids to free themselves. Herakles’ willingness to subject himself to oblivion could also be indicative of his state of mind – for surely he felt great remorse for having murdered his kin. Yet his labours could also be described as a crucible that shaped him as a hero, that final labour an allegory of how a mortal son of Zeus himself was mighty enough to defeat challenges cast his way in the Underworld, of excelling in this darkest of places.

Odysseus is another hero to have had his brush with the Underworld, though he did not descend as far as the others. While on his epic return journey after the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men spent time with the enchantress Circe, who had advised him to travel to the “gloomy land of the Cimmerians” (Berens: 240) until he reached the entrance of the Underworld.

There, Odysseus made a blood sacrifice of a ram and a ewe, and called up the shades of the departed in order to consult with the prophet Teiresias. He learnt many things about his destiny and the state of his loved ones back home, but he also got more than he bargained for when he consulted with the shades of dead heroes such as Achilles, Patroklos and Agamemnon. He lost his nerve and fled back to his ship and his men in terror. (Berens: 240-241)

What I gather from this is that there is a degree of transgression against one’s destiny that occurs the moment a hero overreaches himself into realms beyond that which is natural. So-called esoteric knowledge that lies in that liminal space which is locked against mortals comes with a high price, and in my mind the myth suggests how one who is arrogant in his sense of self can be cut down to size. The message is clear: death awaits us all; even the greatest hero can be reduced to but a whisper of his former self once he has crossed over between the land of the living and the dead, where all are made equal. This knowledge is the price that Odysseus pays for his folly for wanting to know his destiny before it unfolds.

Themes prevalent in all four myths vary between escape from forced marriage, as in the case of Persephone; a quest to overcome separation, as in the case of Orpheus and Eurydice; restitution for a great wrong, as in the case of Herakles; and a quest for knowledge, as in the case of Odysseus. The motivations for the quests are vastly different, as are the outcomes, but if one considers the Greek conception of arête (valour, excellence), it is perhaps clear that those who approach the obstacle armed with valour may have the better, while those who give in to doubt, like Orpheus, or who allow their terror to overwhelm them, like Odysseus, will find themselves bested by their situation. A moment of inattention resulted in Persephone travelling forever between the two realms. All instances can be viewed as cautionary tales; if you’re about to enter the Underworld, you had best be prepared.

The realm of Hades can be perceived the implacable final frontier all men face, that not even gods can always escape. Those who strive for excellence (arête) and succeed in transcending death itself, are therefore truly deserving of their place among the divine. By personifying this frightening place, the storytellers were able to frame their understanding using familiar symbols. By giving the Underworld’s ruler a name and a face, they suggest that Hades is someone who can be bargained with, that perhaps there remains a hope for those who have to tread this path. Especially within the context of reassurance, the heroes have gone before so that mere mortals can follow in their footsteps; mankind has prepared a way in which they can assure themselves hope for the inevitable, as can be seen by the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries and similar cults. Death might be the end, but all those who tread those dread paths are not always lost – though the consequences of failure may be dire.


References:
Berens, E.M. (1880) The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Maynard, Merrill, & Co.

Buxton, R. (2004) The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Department of Classics and World Languages. (2011) Greek Mythology in Context. Pretoria: Unisa

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Melancholy Humour by DC Petterson, revised edition

DC Petterson and I go a way back. We've been in writers' groups together, and years ago, when I was still editor over at Lyrical Press, I had the pleasure of working on his first novel-length work, A Melancholy Humour. The wheel turns, and Mr Petterson's rights reverted to him, so when I started working through Crossroad Press, I was overjoyed to have him as one of the select authors with whom I still work.

I've edited two of his novels that occur in the same universe. Lupa Bella, though it was released second, is actually a kind of prequel to A Melancholy Humour. You don't need to read either in any specific order, because each stands on its own. Each tracks Petterson's envisioning of the Good Walkers and the Bad Walkers, the Italian legends of the Benandanti and the Malandanti. Flavoured with werewolves and Italian witches, these stories go to some truly dark places, and hark back to classic-era horror in the style of Stephen King.

And I'm not making the comparison lightly. Petterson is a deeply thought-provoking author whose world is dark, tactile and evocative of something wild that lurks beneath the skin. There's a lot more going on here than you'd expect from the average wolf shifter story.

This time we once again worked with the very talented Milan Colovic, who did the cover art for Lupa Bella initially. We feel he's totally in tune with our vision.

Without further ado, the back cover copy:
Monsters walk the streets of Chicago. So do werewolves. 

Violence swirls around a vulnerable street waif caught between sorcery and madness. Vicious murders on Chicago’s near north side pull Vincent Thiess out of retirement as a police profiler. He must untangle conflicting threads from the Church, the FBI, medieval folklore and his own tortured past. 

Behind the facade of an old Italian neighborhood, do werewolves really prowl? As Vincent struggles to separate reality from nightmare, ancient truths from modern deception, he must protect his family and solve the mystery of the young woman at the center of it all—and keep himself from falling desperately in love.

If this piques your interest, the feel free to add the book on Goodreads, or purchase at Amazon or Smashwords.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This Crumbling Pageant by Patricia Burroughs #review

Title: This Crumbling Pageant (The Fury Triad Book 1)
Author: Patricia Burroughs
Publisher: Story Spring Publishing, 2014

So far as my interests in fantasy goes, this story has it all – good vs. evil where where one’s loyalties are subverted, and plenty of action, intrigue and thwarted romance. We discover the world of the Fireborn and the Earthborn, two different magical nations, and it’s apparent that the Fireborn have ousted the Earthborn from their lands in the British Isles.

A prophecy exists that one day the True King will return and lead the Earthborn to their rightful place, and naturally this leads to conflict between the ruling Fireborn and the subjugated Earthborn.

So far as I can gather, it’s the seventeenth century, and Persephone Jones chafes against the strictures placed on her as a young woman of privilege. We first meet her when she sneaks out in her twin brother Dardanus’s place to find out what their hated tutor, Vespasian Jones, is up to with her male siblings after nightfall (no, it’s nothing what it sounds like).

What she ends up stumbling into is the tail end years-long conflict centred on the anti-hero Vespasian, who’s doing his damnedest to bring down the corrupt King Pellinore, although it takes Persephone a while to realise that perhaps the rebels have the right of it.

A word on the world of the Fireborn and Earthborn: much like JK Rowling’s muggles vs. magical worlds, their world seems to exist separate yet simultaneously with the Ordinary, as Burroughs describes it. Persephone is gifted with a surfeit of Dark magic, and though for some reason she’s not taught to control it, her family drug her instead in order to keep a lid on things.

The Fury family has long supported the kings of the Fireborn, and with her magic, Persephone becomes a target for the rebels, who seek her aid to help overthrow the regime. This is all grist for my mill when it comes to the fantasy genre, but I do have a few issues. Burroughs’s writing is rich and evocative, but there are moments when I feel that the characters act or say things, but I don’t feel as if I’m given sufficient motivation to understand *why* they do/say the things they do.

I feel I needed to know more of *why* there was a push/pull situation between Vespasian and Persephone. I’d also have liked to see Persephone take a stronger stance as a character. Granted, when she does have her moment of revelation, she *does* act, but then I felt I needed to get more inside her head. And ditto for Vespasian. It wasn’t enough for me that he simply hated Persephone, but I wanted to go deeper into his point of view as well.

There were also plenty of unanswered questions, and perhaps the one that bugged me the most was that if Persephone was supposedly so powerful, why her family hadn’t moved to train her or use her in some way instead of relegating her to the status of marriageable goods. I get that there were strictly defined gender roles in that era, but it still was something I struggled with. Also, I wanted to know a little more of the mechanics of how the Dark magic worked, in addition to the musical ability. To this end I felt the writing glossed over bits, and Burroughs could have slowed down her pace a fraction.  

Other than that, this was an engaging read, and I loved the way she subverted my loyalties and inverted notions of good vs. evil.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Road to Mecca – an essay

A quick note... The following is an essay I wrote for my English literature module at university. We had to discuss the character Marius Byleveld from the Athol Fugard play The Road to Mecca, which is based on the life of outsider artist Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. I thought I'd share, specifically if there are other students or interested parties who might benefit from having my thoughts available. 

The Camel Yard, Owl House
Picture: Robin Tweedie / Wiki Commons
At a glance, the character Marius Byleveld in Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca, is not a sympathetic character, yet on closer reading, he is revealed to be an individual who displays surprising depth tempered by the tragedy of the socio-historical factors he is unable to transcend. 

To understand the man, we need to grasp his position among the people he serves. As dominee of the village of Nieu Bethesda, Marius is an important member of a highly conservative community. In that regard, people look up to him, and he is under a fair amount of pressure to maintain high standards and function as the spiritual and moral pillar of this community. It is also clear that he takes his work seriously and is hyper conscious about what he considers his Christian duty, even if it results in actions that might be viewed as authoritarian from a more liberal point of view. As a religious leader, he must display only exemplary behaviour according to the norms of the time, perhaps even at the cost of his own happiness.

This is borne out by his attitude towards Helen’s predicament, when he says, “We can’t tell you what to do. But if you want us to stop caring about what happens to you, we can try… though I don’t know how our Christian consciences would allow us to do that.” (Fugard: 60)

He speaks for the community, but in a way, perhaps, it can also be construed that he uses his position as a community leader who expresses what a community feels, as a front behind which he hides his true feelings, consciously or unconsciously.

As dominee and friend, he approaches Helen with the proposition that she apply to live in an old age home. The most obvious reason for this he gives as Helen’s recent “accident” where she almost burns down her home. It is implied that her actions may have been intentional when Marius lets slip, “She had stopped trying to put out the flames herself and was just standing staring at them.” (Fugard: 63)
In the play, he is set up as the antagonist, whose actions threaten Helen’s way of life and her continued connection to her beloved home with all its sculptures and artworks. This does not immediately make him a likeable character, but then Fugard weaves in additional details that develop Marius as a person and allow us to gain a degree of sympathy with him.

This is illustrated when he shares that he came to Nieu Bethesda to escape a painful past. “This was going to be where I finally escaped from life,” Marius says, “turned my back on it and justified what was left of my existence by ministering to you people’s simple needs. I was very wrong. I didn’t escape life here, I discovered it, what it really means, the fullness and the goodness of it.” (Fugard: 53)

He also expresses his deep connection with the earth (through his thriving vegetable garden), and the practical nature of his soul, when he says, “With every spadeful of earth that I turned when I went down on my knees to lift the potatoes out of the soil, there it was: ‘thank you.’”

Not only is he in this case—almost literally—down to earth, but he is by his own admission also deeply spiritual and humble. His intentions are good; he honestly wishes to serve his community even at the expense of himself.

He is about to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his service to Nieu Bethesda and its people, and it’s been twenty-one years since his wife, Aletta, passed away, and it is clear that his reason for coming here in the first place was to escape and find peace (this is also a play on the Biblical Bethesda in Jerusalem, that was associated with healing). 

Yet at the same time, for all his good, Marius (and by default the majority of the Nieu Bethesda community) also displays that he is incapable of understanding why Helen’s home and its art is so important to her. Examples of this are:
“And then your hobby, if I can call it that, hasn’t really helped matters. This is not exactly the sort of room the village ladies are used to or would feel comfortable in having afternoon tea. As for all that out there… the less said about it, the better.” (Fugard: 60)

This encapsulates how Marius misunderstands the nature of Helen’s art, as if it were a mere hobby, a trifle. In a way he blames her for isolating herself by creating an environment that is contrary to accepted norms. He simply cannot wrap his head around the idea that an individual would willingly step outside of accepted social behaviour.

This results in him, despite his good intentions, to act in a patronising manner towards Helen (for which Elsa chastises him) because he cannot control nor understand her yearning for artistic expression. He cares deeply, yet he himself cannot express himself.

When the subject of the community’s behaviour towards Helen’s eccentricity is brought up (children damaged some of her sculptures) Marius claims, “We don’t persecute harmless old ladies”, (Fugard: 65) yet he goes on to admit, “You’ve seen what is out there… How else do you expect the simple children of the village to react to all that? It frightens them, Miss Barlow. I’m not joking! Think back to your impressionable years as a little girl. I know for a fact that all the children in the village believe that this house is haunted and that ghosts walk around out there at night. Don’t scoff at them. I’m sure there were monsters and evil spirits in your childhood as well.”

With this statement, I feel Marius truly reveals what he is feeling about Helen’s art, though he hides behind his designation as work as a community leader and representative when he makes that statement.

Elsa points out to Marius that Helen dared to be different by not going to church anymore and engaging more in her art, which is representative of her freedom. Helen, according to Elsa, is expressing an awareness of self and life versus the groupthink of the community, and in that very fact she isn’t as harmless as Marius would make out.

This pushes Marius into admitting, “You call that… that nightmare out there an expression of freedom? … In another age and time it might have been called idolatry.” (Fugard: 67)

He views her art as not only a threat to her spiritual well being but to her physical well being too – taking up space meant, in his opinion, for growing vegetables that could nourish her body. (Fugard: 68)

Helen uses her art as a way to pass time, thereby implying that people only attend church to “pass time”. That first Sunday she skipped church Marius worried about her and went to check up on her after the service, only to discover that she was busy making a sculpture. 

It is a natural step for him to feel threatened and jealous by her attraction to this pursuit, and view the sculptures as idols.

He is angry and confused, when he says, “I feel as if I’m on trial, Helen. For what? For caring about you? That I am frightened of what you have done to yourself and your life, yes, that is true!” (Fugard: 59)
This is a turning point for Marius, where the mask of Marius-the-dominee slips to reveal Marius-the-man, who has harboured feelings for Helen all these years without admitting them. He has hidden behind his role as an authority figure in the community all this time until events come to a head in Helen’s house that evening.

Helen further communicates how Marius’s world has lost meaning to her when she says, “All those years when, as Elsa said, I sat there so obediently next to Stefanus, it was all a terrible, terrible lie. I tried hard, Marius, but your sermons, the prayers, the hymns, they all became just words. And there came a time when even they lost their meaning.” (Fugard: 70)

She reveals more when she discusses how, after her husband Stefanus’s funeral, she felt it was her own life being packed away. With Stefanus gone, so was her last tie to her old life and her reason to pretend. Marius’s action of lighting a single candle for her that evening became highly symbolic to her choosing her new path and her discovery of her inner world. 

When Helen talks about her Mecca, Marius still doesn’t understand. He can’t get past Mecca as a physical place that one has to look up on an atlas. Yet he has his epiphany that he is incapable, at his age, of making that intuitive leap that Helen has, and Marius-the-man triumphs over Marius-the-dominee, in that he admits that Helen’s way of seeing things is valid, even if he can never follow her there.

“I’ve never seen you as happy as this,” he says. “There is more light in you than all your candles put together.” (Fugard: 74) This is perhaps the most telling statement near the conclusion of Act Two. Marius shows that he is mature enough to let Helen go; the gulf between them is too vast. He has loved her for twenty years and has only admitted it now, when it is too late, which is to my mind the real tragedy. 

The Road to Mecca is at its core, a story of the tension that arises between societal norms and the individual’s need for self-expression, and much of the dramatic tension in Marius’s story arc presents the opportunity to subvert the audience’s opinion of the man. In Act One, Marius is offered as the antagonist, very much Marius-the-dominee, who is the linchpin poised to separate Helen from her home for her own good (in his and the community he represents’ point of view). By the time Marius appears in Act Two, it’s difficult to like him and what he represents, but then Fugard goes on to show us the man behind the somewhat dour mask. Marius is revealed as humble, and down to earth, and as genuinely caring despite his prejudice against artistic freedom and his somewhat patronising attitude towards Helen.

However, as the tension builds, and many of Marius’s deeply held feelings are exposed, he begins his journey of acceptance by letting go of his fear. He may not understand the appeal of Helen’s artistic freedom, but he can appreciate her personal light and beauty, for what it is.

Tragically, he cannot let go and join her, but there is a resolution of sorts, and peace is made. Marius, though he has dropped his mask and the authoritarian figure has been defeated, still retains his human side, and has gained the reader’s grudging respect for having backed down even as Helen has learnt to stand up for herself out of her mire of self-pity. They both go their separate ways, their differences irreconcilable—freedom vs. tradition—but they have a better understanding of who they are and what they want. We are not left with complete closure, but rather a “happy for now” situation.


References:
Fugard, Athol, The Road to Mecca. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992 (80pp).

Kane, Gwen, Byrne, Deirdre and Scheepers, Ruth. Introduction to English Literary Studies (3rd edition). Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2013 (217pp).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone #review

Title: Things a Little Bird Told Me
Author: Biz Stone
Publisher: Macmillan, 2014

Love it or hate it, social media is a large part of our daily digital communication, and it’s social media platforms such as Twitter that are often at the forefront of breaking news. How we share information has changed rapidly over the past few years, so it is with this in mind that I looked forward to delving into Things a Little Bird Told Me.

In this book, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone not only shares how Twitter came about, but he touches on creativity and, most importantly, how he finds ways to turn his limitations into advantages.

This slim volume is simply jam packed with inspiration and, though much of what Stone shares can be deemed common sense, it certainly helps having these thoughts offered within a context.

Far from presenting the public with a cold, corporate face, Stone recognises the power of connecting with other people through his social media platform – in essence what lies at the heart of social media.

Not only does Stone propose looking beyond the obvious for solutions, but he is an advocate for empathy, and the power that small acts of kindness can have for creating change in the world around you.

Stone writes: “Technology is the connective tissue of humanity. Designed right it can bring out the good in people. It can connect us into one giant, emergent, superintelligent life form. That is what I saw happening with Twitter.”

What I take away from Stone’s book is to be a little less passive from here on in, to find ways to create my own opportunities, and to embrace whatever constraint I experience, because great ideas are born out of limitations.

This little book serves as suitable encouragement for anyone who might feel a little worn down by effort, and it also serves as a reminder to encourage and cherish the value in feeling empathy for your fellow humans. Together we can do so much more if we just reach out.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer #review

Title: The Art of Asking
Author: Amanda Palmer
Publisher: Piatkus, 2014

Amanda Palmer’s special brand of art-making has been threaded into my cultural landscape for years now. While I’ve never been a raging fan of her music, both solo and in her band The Dresden Dolls, I’ve nonetheless appreciated her attitude, and there’s something to be said for her music; it’s memorable and snarky, and you won’t forget it quickly (or look at the map of Tasmania in quite the same way again).

This formidable artist is the antithesis of the ephemeral, cosmetically enhanced pop divas whose sameness relegate them, ultimately, to a homogenous anonymity.

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter and self-described activist, and wife to author Neil Gaiman, is not afraid to express exactly what’s on her mind. If some find her loud and off-putting, it’s too bad, so far as she’s concerned. She has no qualms about over-sharing which, in its own way, is refreshing. She connects with people in a way many celebrity musicians don’t.

Perhaps this very fact is why The Art of Asking is so engaging – Amanda breaks down many of our traditionally held norms and calls into question our natural reticence that prevents us from reaching out to others. This is especially pertinent in situations where we do need to ask for help, but don’t.

Amanda isn’t shy. That is one of the first things we learn about her. Yet that outward mask of bravado also hides a fragile, somewhat brittle interior, and Amanda is frank when she speaks of concepts such as “The Fraud Police” that crop up during moments of crippling self-doubt.

While some have criticised her methods, stating that she’s attention-seeking, that she’s constantly asking for favours and exploiting other artists – and this is despite her recent Kickstarter success – I have to give her this much: she’s honest about her wart-and-all methods. She’s not afraid to admit when she’s made an error in judgement.

What’s also immediately clear is that Amanda refuses to be pinned down by traditional methods of making and transmitting art, and she’s willing to experiment. She discusses also how the music industry is limited by traditional methods, and how musicians (and other artists) can break out and empower themselves. By asking.

Granted, Amanda’s results have been unpredictable (both good and not so good) but there’s no denying that she’s a maverick in the industry (which is bound to result in some folks getting their knickers in a twist).

What we have in The Art of Asking is a unapologetic, in-your-face and highly personal account of how one artist refused to be defined by traditions, and how, despite moments of self-doubt, she carved out a niche for herself. This serves as an inspiration to any of us who ever dreamed of following our passions instead of settling for what is safe and predictable. If you’re looking for a book that will inspire you to break out and connect with others, and find ways to turn your limitations into advantages, then The Art of Asking may resonate strongly with you.

Amanda’s intense bond with her fans highlights just how vital this connection is, and many of us would do well to realise that this sort of relationship works both ways.