Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bibliophile: Kickin' It With Kids At Brandon University

 “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood 

This is Bibliophile.
Gotta lot of balls in the air at the moment. There's the shiny new dissertation chapter, for which I have to replay Myst and DOOM, and re-read Mark J. P. Wolf's book on Myst, and Kushner's book on DOOM, respectively. There's a guest lecture on fantasy and games that I agreed to do on Wednesday that I need to plan, for which I've decided--inspired by two recent posts elsewhere--to spend some time talking about assassins and choice in the Elder Scrolls series. There's the list of core game studies books that I'm supposed to be putting together for my RA position this term. There's the choice of what textbook to use for the course I'm teaching next term.  And then there's this Bibliophile entry, which I feel obligated to do after skipping last week to do other extensive, largely thankless searches for books.  So let's get to it, then.

We're done with our tour of the British Columbia universities, and thus moving into the next province, alphabetically: Manitoba.  Manitoba?  Really?  That's a lot of unused letters for starting provinces.  We should add a few more: Declund.  Farbank. Highlandian Crescents. Jigguraut. Lameant.  And so forth.  Or we could just start the Bibliophile.  The discussion of new books at Brandon University starts after the break.

Brandon University has a proper new books page, and it's just over 500 items.  What convenience! Granted, it tells me the new books are those purchased in the month of January 2013, but we'll ignore that bit. The books are organized alphabetically, by subject.

The biology of belief : by Lipton, Bruce H. (2008)
This, unsurprisingly, is from biology. The subtitle is "Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, & Miracles, and the author's name on the cover is followed by PhD, which places us squarely in the pop science category. The argument of the book is that the way we think about how our cells receive information is fundamentally wrong--DNA, rather than the dominant building block that controls our body, is instead controlled itself by signals from outside the cells, including our own thoughts. On the one hand, this concept feels a little more "New Age" style than I'm really comfortable with. But on the other hand, it's attacking a scientific paradigm that's probably worth attacking. The general public understanding of DNA as "life's blueprints" is an oversimplification, and discussing where the model is flawed could be productive. But I'm wary that this particular approach is replacing one oversimplification with another. Also, he calls the new area "epigenetics," which gives me unfortunate flashbacks to Stiegler's epiphylogenesis.

A kick in the head / (2005)
This is from children's books.  And with a title like that, it is entirely beyond my ability to avoid it. The subtitle missing in this catalog entry is "An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms." The conceit here is that the book presents 20 different poetic forms, to teach children about what kinds of poetry are out there. Other books in this series include A Foot in the Mouth, which focuses on spoken word and singing, and A Poke in the I, which is about concrete poems. They argue that poems are like sports, in that the restrictions give space for play (a definition that bears a lot in common with the definition of games in Salen and Zimmerman's Rules of Play.) The types include couplet, tercet, quatrain, persona poem, ballad, and pantoum, among others, and includes J. Patrick Lewis' "Epitaph for Pinnochio," and Rebeca Kai Dotlich's poem on the Vietnam wall, "Whispers to the Vietnam Wall." H.

Down the chimney with Googol and Googolplex / by Kazenbroot, Nelly, (c2004.)
A very high fraction of the books bought in January 2013 at Brandon University are in the children's section, if that wasn't already clear. Set for ages 7 to 9, this book is about a pair of alien robots, Googol and Googolplex who are on earth to collect things. Children Pippa and Troy are along for the ride. I'm having a hard time getting a read on exactly what this book is, to be honest. There's a little too much plot for it to work as a "spot the object" book, and too little plot for it to be much else. Any intrepid readers who are up to date on their children's lit want to fill the blanks here? Random thought: how much do hidden object games have in common with the old Where's Waldo series?

Guyku : by Raczka, Bob. (2010)
The portmanteau in the title is a combination of guy and haiku; the subtitle helpfully tells us that we're dealing with a year of haikus for boys. Intended for ages four to eight, the book bills itself as a collection for introducing boys to poetry, by using description of playing in nature. It's imposing a prescriptive idea of what boys are: creatures that enjoy playing outside, rather than, say with action figures or videogames (not that those activities really fit with the style of the haiku, which tends toward natural phenomena), and beings that don't like poetry. Granted, at ages 6-8, I'm not sure anyone is that fond of poetry. I have no way of judging whether this is a worthy goal; I'm realizing more and  more that I've lost any gauge for deciding what "kids these days" are like. I will note that, on a recent trip to the dentist, I got to watch a young boy play with his iPhone for about two minutes, get bored, then spend a full half hour playing with a set of blocks, making elaborate designs, then destroying them with great satisfaction. I'm not sure what that anecdote says about the book at hand, but it seems relevant. H.

LEGO Harry Potter : by Dowsett, Elizabeth.  (2011)
 This book chronicles the history behind the LEGO Harry Potter franchise, including construction sets, video game, and board game. That strikes me as an exceptionally narrow field. I remember when these "reference books for kids" tackled, say, the entire Star Wars universe. Now, we've got a spin-off franchise of a main franchise. Actually, reference books for kids make for an interesting structural problem. The purpose of the reference book is to inform, but the purpose of literature addressed to children ,for the most part, is constructed to entertain. Hitting both marks is hard--lots of labeled pictures help. Also, I have to admit, a part of me was hoping that this book would be a novelization of the LEGO Harry Potter videogame.

Mirror image / by Denman, K. L., (c2007.)
Mirror Image is about Sable, a girl who fled with her mother from Bosnia, to Canada. She has trouble adjusting, until her ninth-grade teacher pairs with "the class bimbo" Lacey, and the two grow closer. This is another example of how the ambition of books for younger audiences really impress me. It's a hard sell to juxtapose the realities of Bosnia with everyday Canadian life; to do that from the perspective of a fourteen year old girl only multiplies the difficulty. It's not something that I'm likely to seek out any time in the future, but I appreciate what the author's doing here.

The ballad of Knuckles McGraw / by Peterson, Lois J., (c2010.)
In grade 9 or so, I wrote a series of short stories about a jack-of-all-trades cowboy type named Sam McGee. Someone then asked me if I was referring to the poem "The Creamation of Sam McGee".  I was not, and I was heart-broken that my character was taken.  That's what I thought of when I thought of this title. Well, that, or a ballad about the echnidna from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. The plot of this book is that an 8 year old is abandoned by his mother and takes refuge in the fantasy of becoming cowboy Knuckles McGraw, while learning to cope with a foster home. Man, kid's books are dark.  This is why I stuck to the fantasy stuff as a kid. And now.

Private empire : by Coll, Steve. (2012)
And now we're in economics.  Or children's books are taking a very capitalist turn. The subtitle missing here is ExxonMobil and American Power. Coll's focus is on the company, and the massive amount of economic and political power it exerts. It covers big oil disaster from Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon, the general atmosphere of secrecy and discipline, and the company's big players. There's also ExxonMobil's stance on the environment, and hundreds of interviews that make up this story. I'm not sure that the book would change my general perspective on the company (a Humanities major predisposed against a multinational corporation? Shocking.), but I'm sure it's a fascinating read.H.

Wet britches and muddy boots : by White, John H., (2012) 
Missing subtitle: A History of Travel in Victorian America.  Fun fact: any time someone adds the adjective Victorian, my interest in the subject halves, unless it's immediately followed by the adjective steam-punk. Kidding aside this appears to be a book written for a general audience of people curious about travel conditions in 1880s America. Anyone who's read a bit of Mark Twain knows the romance that can surround the steamboat, for example (though 1880 may be past the steamboat's heyday), and the early American railroad is practically a story generator for the country binding together and "pioneering American spirit," whatever that may mean.  Some very interesting topics for discussion here.

The digital scholar : by Weller, Martin  (2012)
Subtitle: How Technology is Transforming Academic Practice.  This is an issue of interest to me. In his introduction, Weller uses his research methodology for the book as an example of how academic research has changed since 2004. First, the amount of information available online has increased considerably--no more lugging off to the library. I'll have to agree with this--I'm pretty sure there's still a few first year students in my department who don't actually know where the university library is. Second, online networks have given him a wide pool of resources to draw on, just by going "does anyone have a good example..." Again, I'll affirm this: I've started using a program that collates the links people post on my twitter feed, and I'm averaging at least three quality pieces of game criticism (albeit generally non-academic type criticism) a day, most days. And the types of content change, including journals, books, blog posts, videos, draft publications, conference presentations, and the discussion surrounding all of these. Most importantly, there's been a shift in attitude toward these forms, that it's become more legitimate to pursue these types of publication.  That would be nice. I'd like to think 60+ Bibliophile posts featuring commentary on university library holdings have some value to someone beyond myself. (Averaging 10 books per post, that's over 600 books discussed on this blog.  YOU'RE WELCOME.) Again, it's a book that I don't see radically changing my world view, but it would be a good discussion, and there's probably some resources mentioned here that would prove valuable to me.H.

Both flesh and not : by Wallace, David Foster. (2012)
One of the literary feats I'm proudest of is finishing Foster's 1100 paged Infinite Jest. That doesn't have a lot to do with this collection of nonfiction essays, but, again, I'm very proud. Anyway, this book gathers 15 of his essays that have never been published in book form before. Judging purely from the title of the essays collected, I'd be interested in "Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young," "The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2" (I just watched Terminator 2 yesterday--fun stuff.), "The Nature of Fun,"Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama," and "Deciderization 2007--A Special Report." And given that I've listed a fair number of essays here, I guess I should just read the book. It feels a bit ghoulish that Wallace's essays have been collected in  an accelerating pace after his death, but given the quality of the writing, I'm glad it's out there.H.

Why do we care about literary characters? / by Vermeule, Blakey. (c2010.)
I recently read Kendall Walton's Mimesis as Make-believe, and he addresses the same question. His answer is a deflection of sorts; he says the question we should be asking is how does fictional wondering make us respond emotionally? And then he talks a lot about quasi-fear and things like that. Vermeule's focus is somewhat different. It's on how our attachment to fictional characters affect our experience of reading, and how that in turn influences our real lives, through issues such as sexual desire, gender identity, ambition, rivalry, and issues brought forth from rapid economic change.  There's a bit of 18th century British fiction, and also some more recent mid 20th century postmodern stuff. I'd like to see the discussion draw more heavily into popular culture, where I think the real emotional attachments are going on these days. She's drawing on cognitive science, which I have mixed feelings about, frankly; I recognize the work people in the field are doing, but in terms of applying it to the arts, it reminds a lot of the trend it replaced, applying psychoanalysis to the same thing. H.

The magic of Saida / by Vassanji, M. G. (2012)
I was hoping for fantasy-type magic; sadly, it's about the real life fascination with the unknown and the mystery of human existence instead.  You know, that old hat. The story's protagonist here is Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor in his middle age, who decides to head back to East Africa to find the childhood sweetheart he abandoned, Saida. It spends a lot of time on their past and Kamal's growing up, until "where we discovers [sic] what happened to Saida during a harrowing night of sinister rites."  I spent a little bit of time speculating on what those rituals may be, but I don't really want to know. H

Saladin / by Eddé, Anne-Marie. (2011)
I feel like I've been reading about Saladin for ages. The earliest example I can think of is The Forever King by Molly Cochrane and Warren Murphy, where he plays the villain to a young King Arthur and a strung-out former FBI agent, Hal Woczniak. And he shows up in the videogame Age of Empire II: Age of Kings as the leader of the forces you command in his campaign, though it's presented from the point of view of a European rescued by Saladin in the desert. He's one of those figures who Western folk find fascinating--but as a dark mirror, not as protagonist. That's sort of the point of this biography, to depict him not just in terms of the Western connection, the Crusades, but what Saladin meant in the context of Arab history. As the book explains, Saladin has been held up as this ideal Muslim ruler and thus is generally treated in accounts in a certain way; this book contrasts those accounts with the historically verifiable details. I'd like to read this, if I ever get a chance.

As a side-note, Brandon University separates fiction from nonfiction in their subjects.  That's interesting.  Sort of. Anyway, that's a full set for this week. Catch you next week (or whenever) where the dizzying tour of Manitoban universities will take us to ... the Canadian Mennonite University.  And yes, in answer to my immediate smartass question, they do have a website, and they also have a facebook page, twitter feed, and a new books tab. 

Later Days. 

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