Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Diary of an Honours Student, Week Six

This post could also be entitled: Things Get Real.  Or, How To Plan The Greatest 21st Birthday Ever When a Thesis is Breathing Down Your Neck Like a Big Paper-cutty Dragon.

For a start, my very first assignment was due.  The assignment was to produce an annotated bibliography of the very best 15 sources on my thesis subject.  This is problematic in itself because, doing a literature subject, I am picking a little bit of theories from all over the place.  It's like making a fruit salad.  I don't just want to pick the best fifteen apples off of the trees because who the heck would want to eat a whole bowl of apples when they could have strawberries and bananas too?  Then I had to deal with the notion of what is "best".   Are they the most interesting sources?  The prettiest?  The easiest to understand?  Or are they the ones that are so highly regarded in academia that listing them is the Annotated Bibliography equivalent of saying you studied at Cambridge?

I ended up making a judgement call.  I used the fifteen MOST RELEVANT sources that I had come across from different discourses.  And on Monday, I handed it in.  Over, done, caput.... until the next assignment, which is a Critical Introduction to my Thesis.  OH JOY.

But the other reason that this week has been hard is because it's my Birth-Week.  Ordinarily, I would just get a day on which to celebrate my 21st.... but being a busy Honours student with busy parents and busy friends, my birthday has actually been chunked and divided over the next couple of days, rendering this MY BIRTH WEEK.  Sounds epic, right?

And it is, except that gone are the days where birthdays meant you could put on your party dress, and your mum would make snacks like fairy bread, and all your friends would come over and give you stuff.  Because getting older means learning that the process leading up to that part means WORK.  And some of that work you actually have to do for yourself.  This week, I am indebted to my support team (friends and family) who are helping me enjoy this special process.  A big shout out to my Mum, to History Boy, and to HIS Mum.

 So, in summation, I'm stressed but I'm really looking forward to it.  Here are a few things I've learnt this week about doing Honours when it's your birthday.

1. You can't please everyone.  You just can't.  If you try, you will feel like the ball in a pinball machine, constantly being flung back and forth, trying to make compromises.

2. You must be assertive.  Remember that you won't get what you want if you don't speak up.  This is MY birthday party, so I have had to learn that I don't have to incorporate anyone else's vision into it... because, see point one... I have tried.

3. You must be realistic.  You are not Superwoman.  You cannot cater a whole party, read six books, buy alcohol for sixty people, clean your house, write 2000 words and buy a pair of shoes all in one day.  Give yourself enough time, and know when enough is enough.

4. If you have to pack your schedule, make sure you litter it with you time.  10 am? Transport food.  1 pm? Cleaning.  But 4 to 7 pm?  That's going to be pamper time, and if anyone takes me away from my curling iron, they'll have it coming.

5. Take a moment to step back and realise that everyone is showing you that they love you.  And make sure you say thank you.  I know it feels like you don't have time to stop, but saying thanks takes mere seconds, where as constructing cupcake mountains and putting together Easter Birthday baskets takes a bit more time than that.  (For those, I want to thank Barbara and Carol respectively.)

If you've been organised up until this point, your Honours project will survive.  The essay will still be half finished on Monday.  Words will not disappear off the page.  And if you give yourself space to breathe and get everything done, you may even find you have a stray hour lying about to work on it or write a book review.

If it's your birthday tomorrow too, Happy Birthday from me.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Review: How A Review in The West Australian Newspaper Convinced Me To Read The Hunger Games

This review is about two things.  It is first and foremost a review of the 2009 novel by Suzanne Collins- The Hunger Games, first in the YA dystopian trilogy.  But it is also a lesson in reviewing, a lesson I am learning out loud on this blog.

I had never intended to read The Hunger Games.  It seemed to me that it was another pop culture phenomena that would come and go like bushfire, sweeping through everyone I know and then leaving as soon as it came.  Also, some of the books had an endorsement from Stephenie Meyer on the front.  Now, long standing readers of my blog will know that I too was fooled by Twilight.  I was fooled by the amount of press attention that series was given, by the number of people talking about the books, and by the fact that my younger sister (who never reads for recreation except in unusual circumstances) was into them.  I read them and I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed them.  It was like being in a trance.  A shallow, superficial trance.  For a moment, I knew what it felt like to be Barbie.  Of course, then I went to University and learnt my lesson- essentially that I had been fooled by bad writing disguised in a shiny wrapper.  And that just because everyone is reading a book, it doesn't mean that it is a good book.

So, I was wary of The Hunger Games because I believed that, like Twilight, the people had been duped.

Even people I know, and respect.

Also, undertaking a thesis, I really couldn't see a logical reason to take a break and read them.

Then on Friday, the West Australian Newspaper published a review of the film by Mark Naglazas that changed my mind.  Naglazas's review told a story- the story of the way meaning unfolded for him in the film (and also the book, because he made reference to it.)  The story that he told was of a book that critiqued society's ridiculous fascination with reality T.V., while at the same time being a dystopian fiction, while at the same time being a young adult novel (here, I am somewhat skeptical.  I can see younger readers having no trouble with the language used but some of the themes...)  Simply put, the review was more than your average what-i-liked-and-what-i-didn't recap.  It was a perfect example of a review, setting out what the author/ director's intentions were and stating whether or not Naglazas felt they had been realised, interacting with public speculation surrounding the film adaptation, discussing key themes and providing a particular reading, all without giving away the ending.

I immediately decided that I wanted to read the book.  For a long time I've had the idea that I could write a short story about people on a reality television show, but these books seemed to take that idea to an extreme that I wasn't even clever enough to think of.  Suddenly, the idea that these books were mere popularist fantasy seemed like a stupid one.  On Saturday night, I borrowed the book.  By bedtime on Sunday I was done.

The books centre around the idea that in the dystopian future, after everything has degenerated (due to the environment and human violence etc.) what was once North America becomes Panem- a nation of 13 districts and a capital.  In the century before the book is set, the districts staged an uprising against the capital and were defeated, with one district (number 13) being wiped out entirely.  As punishment, once a year a boy and a girl are taken from each district at random and put on a television show in which they must fight to be the last competitor alive.  They must participate in Big Brother in the wild with weapons. The book's main character, Katniss Everdeen, finds herself the girl tribute from District 12 when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose.

What is it that makes a book 'unputtdownable'?  In many cases, it is not a flawless grasp of good language skills.  At times, Collins' sentences are too long and she uses the occasional cliche, as well as falling into the trap of telling rather than showing in some cases (largely less relevant ones).  But her protagonist, Katniss, sees the world in an observant and consistent way.  The reader is carried seamlessly along.  Collins follows many of the key rules of good writing; she begins as close to the action as necessary and lets characters unfold along the way.  Every character is motivated, is realised with specific details and seems well planned.  If we do not get deep insight into them, it is because Katniss herself does not have it.

At times I found myself frustrated by this, particularly when it came to Katniss's reading of Peeta Mellark, her co-tribute in the Hunger Games.  Peeta's feelings for Katniss become more and more obvious to the reader as the book wears on, but Katniss is too stubborn?  obstinate?  to think of them as anything other than a ploy for the cameras.  This romance came off as somewhat contrived too, but it was meant to be.  The whole thing, from Katniss's point of view, was a show for the cameras.

But what endears me to Katniss, despite her performing, is her ability to feel things despite her desperation not to.  Collins truly has crafted a dystopian heroine- a sixteen year old with the mentality of someone much older who truly does appear to have evolved past having emotions to become a hunter.  Katniss is NOT the Mary Sue she could be, despite the fact that, yes a male character does fall for her.  She is Cinderella with a bow and arrow, except that she doesn't turn into a tittering fool the moment she realises that someone likes her.

The book leaves you with an unsettled feeling- how could it not? (Read it and see)

But it answers more questions than it raises.  I can't really see how the second book will fit in... I guess I will have to find out.

I give The Hunger Games four out of five silver arrows.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Diary of an Honours Student: The Study Week Edition

First things first... did you see me on All That Glitters this week?  YOU DIDN'T?

We must remedy this at once.  Amber-Rose from All That Glitters asked me to write a special guest post on my favourite book as part of her Literature Festival.  It went up on Sunday, and you can read it right here.  (Thanks, Amber-Rose!)

Right.  Let's push on, shall we?

This week, I want to ask: What do you do when you find a piece of evidence, or get an answer from an expert that totally throws your ideas about your research out the window?

Do you:

a) Forget that you found the evidence, just like you would forget you found one of your sister's earrings in your collection after you'd sworn you hadn't taken it?

b) Take the piece of evidence totally out of context and make it put it's leg behind it's head like a contortionist so that it actually does support your thesis?

c) Sit down with all your information, look at it in a logical way and ask what does this piece of information tell me about my thesis NOW?

If you answered C, you'd be correct.  Congratulations, you are neither lazy, nor David Irving.

Last week, I emailed an author.  Let's call him Fred Jones.  In this email, I asked him what I thought was an incredibly intelligent question, which went a little something like this.

"I’ve uncovered in my research that in the early part of the 20th Century most people wrote manuscripts to send to London publishers, therefore they wrote them with a London readership in mind- and this ties to the notion of the Londoners enjoying thinking of us as wild colonials. The text was mediated by that publisher, and we effectively import our own culture. Now, a lot of writers send their work to Melbourne, or to Sydney. I’m wondering if you think the same sort of thing occurs? For example, does your editor or publisher ever give you critiques on your work and ask you to make it ‘more Western Australian’, i.e. play on that otherness? And if they do, what sorts of things do they want to see from us over there?  "
 I thought to myself as I smugly pressed 'Send', "Self, you're really onto something here. You're connecting an idea that you researched with something else that you've researched, and what you've come up with is real BIG PEOPLE stuff.  Well done."

But no sooner had I patted myself on the back, the reply came.

Not only did 'Fred Jones' totally reject my claim that early 20th Century writers were mediated by London Publishers (a claim I had gotten from a REAL BOOK no less), he told me that he'd never experienced any Western Australian-ization of his manuscripts.

But I didn't give up.  I thought, maybe my idea needs clarifying.  I sent back another email.

"I’m basing all of this on the theories of Richard Nile (and then some other people but I won’t bore you). In a lecture the other day he was saying “Authors make manuscripts, Publishers make books and readers make Literature.” Which is an interesting idea. Let me put it this way. Say I write a novel (sorry, manuscript) about Australia. It’s the 1900s, I live in Perth, and I send my manuscript to Angus and Robertson but they’re too busy to take it. So I send it to Joe Bloggs the Publisher in London. And Joe likes it, but he sends notes back to me “This will never sell unless there are more Koalas in it.” Do you see what I mean about the mediation? So I rewrite parts of the novel (manuscript) and include a Koala called Barry. And Joe publishes it, and people in London see it in the bookstore, with Barry on the cover and they say “Oh, smashing, another book about the wild colonials and their Koala Bears. Shall we have a spot of tea?” and they buy it.
Fast forward to now. I write a manuscript set in Western Australia. I send it to a publisher in Sydney, who likes it, but sends notes back to me saying “This will never sell unless there is more of an emphasis on the Swan River.” So I rewrite a scene and set it on the Swan River. When it comes out, people buy it, and reviewers start calling me “The Next Craig Silvey”
Does that make more sense? Did that happen to you in any form?"

The reply came back later that same day.  It basically amounted to a big fat, "Sorry to burst your bubble, but no."

I was disheartened.  What was the point of doing Honours, if not to discover that I am right about things anyway?  I didn't sign up to be wrong!  

But like you, I knew I had to choose option C.  I remembered being in First Year Literature, and the tutor telling another student that  finding an article that didn't fit with her thesis statement necessitated interaction with that article, even if it was just to state why this student didn't agree with that author.  (Yes, as a University Student, it IS okay to say that you don't agree with PUBLISHED ACADEMICS.  It's more complicated than you'd think though, you have to know why, and 'Just Coz' doesn't cut it.)  I also remembered studying the Irving-Lipstadt case, not once, twice but three times over the course of my regular undergrad degree.  The proper treatment of evidence is tattooed on my mind, indelibly.

And so, I sat down and I thought.

And then I went in search of a honey pot, because I had the rumbliest tummy.

My Thoughts and Reflections Log for that afternoon reads a little like this:

I emailed "Fred Jones" and asked him whether he felt there had been any external pressure to make his book more Western Australian from the editing team.  His reply has been that, no, there wasn’t and if there was, he would be inclined not to work with that editor.  This is totally different to what I have been reading from academics on the subject, and indeed totally different from the opinion of Richard Nile.  If I apply this then to the ideas of Paul Salzman and Ken Gelder- that from the 1970s onwards, Australians have been less restricted in their fiction due to ideas from the 20th century like feminism etc.- perhaps the conclusion we are heading towards is that ‘Australian Identity’ as we knew it is either a) so firmly established that there need be no conscious effort to write it, or b) is dead and irrelevant.  I think Nile actually raises this question in his book.  Gelder and Salzman also talk about the increasing need for the author to be as much a product as their book- so, publishers don’t just make contracts for individual books, they have contracts with particular authors.  An author like "Fred" has the option, as he put it of “sending the editor an autographed photo of his arse” if they want him to make changes in terms of marketability to his book because publishing a manuscript is nowhere near as hard as it was when Elizabeth Jolley talked about Australian publishing being an incestuous little circle.
 Thankfully, I don’t think that this new understanding alters my thesis overmuch.  And I do need to keep in mind that this may be just "Fred", not all authors.

Looking at this now, I say to myself "Well, Self, this looks a little tiny bit like a proper, adult literature review."  And I feel just the tiniest bit proud.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Diary of an Honours Student, Week Four

What can you do when doing a Higher Degree by Research really starts to get you down?  If you're anything like me, this presents a special conundrum- reading, your usual pastime, is now a job.  You need to do something that doesn't involve straining your eyes.  Something that both indulges your neglected senses and vents your frustration.

My friends, I am here to reintroduce you to the concept of baking.

I'd never been big on cooking.  That had always been someone else's job.  I mean, eugh.  Doing the dishes?  NO THANK YOU.  I was too busy reading books.

When I discovered in the last year that I actually quite enjoy baking, I was a little worried.  "Self," I said to myself.  "You're going to get fat."  But, touch wood, it hasn't happened yet, and I believe that comes down not just to exercise (because I don't always do that) but to the fact that the act of baking itself is quite satisfying... by the time you have finished, you really only need to eat one.  Plus all the mixture you guzzle on the way.  (Seriously, guys, exercise is VERY important, especially with you spending all day in that office chair.  Go outside, you pasty thing!)

I'm going to let you in on a little secret now.

Are you ready?

Baking is cathartic.  Just like punching your pillow, or screaming into it, or hitting your siblings (don't hit your siblings), there is something about putting ingredients in your electric mixer and mixing the living daylights out of them that just makes you feel good.  That egg you just cracked?  It cracked perfectly, there were no guzzies in it, and most importantly, it didn't want to talk about transmodiology with you.  This is why baking from a packet simply won't work for stress relief.  Ripping open a packet, adding egg and water just isn't the same.  Baking is a science.  As History Boy often tells me (and perhaps it is a quote), baking is a science for hungry people.

Today, I made cupcakes from this book:

Okay, okay, so Marian Keyes isn't Nigella Lawson... but if you read the introduction, you'll see that Marian gets it.  She understands the stress and depression relieving qualities of making a cute cake.  

After having a read of this book, History Boy and I coined a phrase.  "Don't have a sad, have a cupcake."

So here is my attempt at Marian's Consistently Reliable Cupcakes, page 56.  You'll note that only one of them has piped icing, as I managed to split my piping bag... it was a bit cheap.  Also, the recipe makes twice as much icing as I would recommend for this many cupcakes.  Just a head's up.

Tea anyone?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Diary of an Honours Student, Week Three

Let's get down to business.

My mum says that there is a phenomenon experienced by new mothers in which the mother spends all day at home with the baby, and therefore is so starved for adult conversation that when her significant other comes home, she smothers them with talk.  And maybe this other person does not WANT to talk.  Maybe they've been at work all day, talking to morons and jackasses, and they just want to be silent for the next hour.

Well, think of my thesis like a baby.  Most days, I have to get up and deal with my thesis.  I go to class to learn how to take care of it.  I go to the library to get it things.  I feed it the knowledge that I get from books and articles.  I clean it up, and change it.  I do these things alone, in my room with the door shut and only the dog for company.  It gets a little overwhelming considering that I do these things in stints of a few hours/ most of the daylight at a time.  It gets lonely only having a dog and some books for company.  Gosh, I never thought that I would say that.

Anyway, it's been brought to my attention that I may have this New Parent Syndrome, and having had some time to think about it, I'd like to share some coping techniques.

1.  Get out of the House

If your nerves are absolutely frazzled from studying at home, try the library.  Try a cafe.  Try somewhere where there are other people around so that you can prove to yourself that the world has not suddenly fallen away while you were working on your thesis.

2. Reward Yourself

Tell yourself that you will go to a movie on Friday if you get enough words done during the week.  Treat yourself to a walk by the river.  Watch television when you take your break.  Remember that just because you're doing a higher degree by research, it doesn't mean that you have to stop doing the things you enjoy.  No one expects you to be studying Friday night, and if you've done your work during the week, you can go dancing.

3. Be Willing to Compromise

If you want to talk to your boyfriend/ girlfriend/ best friend/ family member and catch up, be aware that they've got their own stuff going on too.  Shift your phone call to after dinner instead of right after they get in the door.  You don't have to give up human contact altogether.

4. Be Assertive

Make sure the people in your life know what you need.  Use your big person words.  "I need you to make time to have a coffee with me."  "I need you to come over this week."  "I need a really big bottle of wine."

5. Branch Out

Like a big green, leafy academic tree.  You don't have to tell all your woes to one person.  That poor person has their own stuff to deal with.  Think about the problem that you are dealing with, and who would be the best person in your life to talk about it with.  Who can give you perspective?  Problems with your thesis are best talked over with your supervisor, your peer or sometimes your parents/ older siblings if they've done university.

Also remember that variety is the spice of life.  That class member you added on Facebook, who you think is really cool?  They'll be your friend on Facebook, what's to say they won't in real life?  Invite someone new out for a coffee after class and get your life out of cyberspace and into reality from time to time.

6. Schedule Your Time

You don't need to know what you'll be doing every second of every day, but you do need to know that between 9 and 5 weekdays, for example, your mind is on your thesis.  Tell your friends about your plan so that they can contact you when you're NOT busy.  And try to stay off Facebook/ Twitter/ Tumblr/ Blogger while you're working.

7. Remember WHY you are doing this

You have a goal.  It is an important goal.  You need your thesis to get there.  Therefore, you love your thesis, it is your baby.  Give it a name.  Give it a working title.  Introduce it to your friends.  Put your best effort into it.

(For instance, I am trying to think of a really interesting, non gender specific name for my thesis that is quite Australian.  Any suggestions?)

All that being said, it's time for me to get my nose in a book.  I hope that this has been helpful.  Thanks for checking in!