A while back we reported the first review out of Xavier Romero-Frias’s Folk Tales of the Maldives, a sternly academic assessment that downplayed the book’s literary qualities. Now the Asian Review of Books has come out with a review that recognises – indeed focuses on – the attraction the book will have for people simply wanting to enjoy a good story or who dream of a holiday in the Maldives.
The reviewer starts provocatively, writing:
The Maldives are today best-known as a collection of resorts populated by tourists rather than an indigenous people with a unique culture and long traditions. Spanish author-anthropologist Xavier Romero-Frias collected the 80 folk-tales presented here over a period of 28 years and in so doing reveals that there is considerably more to the Maldives than a spot for wealthy visitors from other lands.
As for the stories:
These generally moral fables are predominantly very short, none ranging to more than a few pages. Originally passed orally from generation to generation with slight adaptations dependent on which island they were told, they acted not so much as entertainment but – by explaining why Maldivian society and environment is and should remain as is – as forms of social control. Several are amply illustrated also by Romero-Frias himself, augmenting their original format. …
This, indeed, is the first collection of Maldivian tales actually written down. It’s just as well, for the rise of a more upfront version of Islam has coincided with a downswing in the popularity and profile of such widespread and repeated traditional folktales, in favour of a stricter theocratic version of “how things are” and “how things should be”. …
The reader is therefore fortunate that the editor has made strenuous efforts to collate this anthology of stories, collected while they were still in living memory.
Some of these tales are gruesome. … Cannibalism is also rife – very often with a woman as the perpetrator!
Sorcerers and spirits quite literally spin and twist throughout also, while – unsurprising given that Maldives are islands – tales about cargo ships, and sea-wrecks and indeed sea wrack, proliferate. These tales also feature a moralistic climax and subsequent denouement. They leave the profound impression that their purpose is to extend societal stability by virtue of the manifest messages implied …
Summing up, the reviewer writes:
Folk Tales of the Maldives is, all in all, a quite delightful collection, not merely because it is well-presented and has prolific and cogent notation throughout, but more obviously because the tales – as we dive in here and there over a period of a few days – are rather charming in what I would nominate as their ingenuous innocence, a reflection of a Maldives which has largely disappeared in an increasingly globalized and cynical world, but which at the same time offer a welcome escape from this very world.
Even if the intended audience for this review are general readers, there is much to offer the academic reader (the reviewer points to an “excellent academic and well-footnoted Introduction”, for instance). And who knows,for those of you in the northern hemisphere contemplating your upcoming summer holiday (and those shivering in the Antipodean winter), the occasional dip into a world of sorcerers and spirits, sharks and sea-wrecks could be just what you need.
And that need not be mere relaxation. As Lars Bo Kaspersen, chairman of the NIAS Board and head of Political Sciance at Copenhagen University, said at a staff meeting yesterday: Enjoy your summer holiday but don’t forget to read; that is where your new ideas and insights will come from.
Happy (summer) reading!
At a recent conference in Tokyo, NIAS author Vibeke Børdahl spoke on the oral and the written in oral performance of Chinese storytelling (her favourite topic). At the same time, she presented details of her forthcoming book from NIAS Press.
Let’s be honest: this will be a monster – not in the sense of Frankenstein but in its size (264 x 188 mm, or 10.4” x 7.4”) and weight (heavy). That said, the work is the culmination of Vibeke’s decades-long investigation of Chinese storytelling and promises to be a classic work in that field. Not for nothing has Anne McLaren of University of Melbourne described the work as an indispensable aid to scholars in the field.” She adds that Vibeke’s “penetrating analysis will command the close attention of all scholars with an interest in the early formation of Chinese novels, the history of Chinese performance traditions, and comparative oral-literate traditions.”
The printer’s proofs for the book were approved a couple of weeks ago and we are hoping to have the first advance copy on display in Macau later this month at the International Convention of Asia Scholars. NIAS will be there; with luck so will be our monster and a clutch of other new NIAS books.
Late last year, things were rather hectic at NIAS Press, not least because we had just shifted from Leifsgade (and things weren’t working in our new premises) and there was an important book that had to be out in November. As a result, our publication of The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965-1968, edited by Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor, happened with less fanfare than it deserved.
Since then the book (and the whole rather nasty subject) has attracted more attention with the global screening some time back of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing. Now, the magazine Inside Indonesia has recently published a series of articles and reviews about the killings of 1965-1966. These can be accessed on their website.
Here, however, is an excerpt from a review article in the magazine by Gerry van Klinken:
The Contours of Mass Violence brings together historical research by foreign and Indonesian scholars. It is well-edited, and will make great university classroom material. International complicity in the crimes becomes devastatingly clear in a chapter by Bradley Simpson. A series of regional studies by both well-known and younger scholars bring to light a wealth of new material.
As the reviewer concludes, “One thing is certain: 50 years on, this story is only just beginning.”
As noted elsewhere, there is quite a difference in sales of a history book and of one focused on current affairs. The “up like a rocket, down like a stick” sales behaviour typical of many social science books compared with a more pedestrian sales pattern for many history books can be seen in the image below.
Arguably, however, in many ways this image is misleading. Just how is illustrated with examples from four NIAS Press books.
Coming out in the near future is a history of three political dissidents in pre-war Japan. On the face of it, this is a specialist work of interest to only a few scholars and one might expect sales to be modest. Think again, says the author, pointing out in an essay on Japanese politics at the crossroads that the country is in a similar situation to what it was in the late 1920s and 1930s; her book is highly relevant.
Japanese politics were also on the menu when I had lunch with Dominic Al-Badri last week. More specifically, with the new LDP government of Shinzo Abe beginning to make its mark, topicality and longevity/relevance were issues that I raised with Dominic with regard to the volume he co-edited on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan. The book was only released at the beginning of March but, I wondered, was it already out of date? Not at all, Dominic replied. The issues arising from the disaster still remain, so too most policy responses. About the only issue not covered in the book is that of constitutional reform, something of abiding interest to PM Abe but few other Japanese politicians. That said, while initial sales of the book have been strong, we can expect them to decline (perhaps quite rapidly) as time passes; memory of the disaster will lose its potency and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant.
Certainly, the era of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand is long gone; he was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Sales were massive when we published the definitive assessment of Thaksin’s impact on Thai politics and society back in 2005 but the copies sold had fallen markedly by 2008 when the deposed prime minister sought political asylum in the United Kingdom. Even today, however, the book continues to sell – perhaps because Thaksin’s sister is now the country’s prime minister but more than likely also because of the scholarship (the book has been judged to be “essential reading for anyone interested in understanding ‘Thaksinization’ and what is clearly an extraordinary chapter in modern Thailand’s political history”).
Finally, there is the case of Trudy Jacobsen’s history of women and power in Cambodia. This had less dramatic initial sales than After the Earthquake and Thaksinization but it continues to sell, week after week, despite Cambodian history hardly being a mainstream subject. Why? Certainly the scholarship but also the relevance; this is, as one reviewer wrote, “an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”. Not only do libraries and individuals buy the book but also it is still used in courses five years after publication.
In short, what is at work here is a combination of at least three factors: topicality, relevance and scholarship. History often deals with dead people but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.
Long lunches and publishing go together, or so it is said. Reality is rather different. However, it was a great pleasure to have Dominic Al-Badri pass through Copenhagen today. And what better than to introduce the co-editor (with Gijs Berends) of After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan – recently published by NIAS Press – to the glories of a real Danish smorgasbord. Quite a while later we staggered out into a bright, sunny afternoon to take in the sight of legions of local Danes busy soaking up the Vitamin D.
This was my first meeting with Dominic, in whose life Japan has played a major role, but his back-story is even more fascinating. As someone working at the European Union’s mission in Tokyo, Dominic is of course careful in what he says. Nonetheless, he came across as a talented communicator with a broad palette of skills and experience – someone actually personifying the richness and breadth of our smorgasbord menu.
It was quite a treat.
Just back from Leiden after attending a conference on Asian cities that was ably led by Gregory Bracken of Delft University of Technology together with our friends at the International Institute for Asian Studies. It was stimulating to have a glimpse of some of the work being undertaken in this area. However, as always, it is a gamble just how much attending such scholarly events leads to a published title by the Press some time later.
Of course, at the same time we took the opportunity to promote eight of our books directly dealing with various issues of urban life in Asia.
So, another London Book Fair is over. Thankfully, I escaped London ahead of any traffic gridlock arising from Maggie Thatcher’s funeral and now have a few things to ponder – and even discuss. I am not alone, it appears. @Gollanz on Twitter has offered the following observation: ‘90% of people who attend #lbf13 reoffend within two weeks - talking about books to family or even complete strangers.’
Running between Monday and Wednesday this week, the fair attracted a healthy number of attendees (though the aisles are still not as crowded as they were a decade ago.) For many attendees, the rights deals are the main thing. These, however, we usually leave till the far bigger Frankfurt fair in October or simply with an e-mail at other times. No, what makes the LBF special are its publishing seminars and the chance to sniff out interesting new developments in the publishing world.
This year the Indians were out in force, busy promoting their pre-press services and all manner of fancy e-book conversion suites. Somehow the glitz looked a tad faded this time (and even the digital seminars on offer were a bit of a yawn).
One also hears that some publishers who happily outsourced their production work to India a few years ago are now bringing significant bits home again (making me wonder at the rationale of Cambridge University Press recently doing the opposite).
What was fascinating to see, however, was how much the LBF is becoming a venue for authors. More about that in a follow-up post.
One reason for there being an author boom at the London Book Fair (as discussed in my last post) must be the rise of self-publishing.
Despite the best efforts of the Creative Commons movement, self-publishing is still uncommon in the academic world – not least because of the continued weight placed on the peer review process. However, there are other reasons, too (for instance costs in time and money), as explored here.
But in the literary world self-publishing has really taken off. Not only is this because of dissatisfaction with what the traditional cartel of publishers, agents and booksellers has to offer (usually not much) but also because the internet has given authors the tools to express themselves and reach out to a wide readership.
An early pioneer here was Lulu.com (celebrating ‘ten years and two million storytellers’), which offers tools and services to make publishing simple and which claims it has the most options to sell your books. Today there are many other companies offering similar build-your-own publishing services online.
However, the gorilla in the teashop is Amazon with its Kindle Direct Publishing service, allowing authors to quite easily publish their works in the Kindle Store. In effect, Amazon has set itself up as a publisher, a move that has already had a marked effect on its revenues and share of the publishing cake. Critics claim that the Kindle Store is swamped with rubbish, however, and very few of the tens of thousands of authors flocking to Amazon are making any money.
Be that as it may, ‘Authorworld’ is humming both at the London Book Fair and beyond. As for (not) making money, well that sounds a lot like the situation of most academic authors.
As mentioned in my last news item on the London Book Fair, what was fascinating to see was how much the LBF is becoming a venue for authors. Sure, it has always been a place for selected authors to strut their stuff, usually in promotion of a new book – as for instance this Turkish author mobbed by his fans after doing a book reading last Tuesday afternoon.
But, much more so than in the past, there are seminars aimed squarely at authors. An example can be seen in the scene below, from a session discussing the usefulness (or otherwise) of literary agents.
It was in fact such an author event that was easily the best LBF seminar that I attended. And I did so by accident, thinking it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). What each of the panelists discussed was how they used social media to promote themselves and reach out to (often huge) readerships. Their actual comments and advice are described elsewhere but the essence of what each of them said was:
If you want to be published today, you have to use social media. Don’t want to go near Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., then you don’t want to get published.
Initially, I thought this judgement was extreme and did not apply to the academic world. For instance, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship. But after listening to the panelists’ arguments and thinking about the issue, now I am not so sure. How many more readers would our shy authors reach if they pushed themselves forward a little more?
Something to ponder.
The first review of our recently published study of Japan after the 2011 triple disaster, After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan, edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends, has appeared. Frankly, we thought that one of the Japanese news media would be first but quicker off the mark was Acumen, the magazine of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
In its latest (April) issue, the reviewer recalls how some commentators suggested the impact of the triple disaster was so enormous that it might lead to ‘the third opening of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and the post World War II occupation.’ Clearly, this did not happen (or not yet) but the reviewer sees that a better evaluation is now possible two years after the disaster.
Perhaps it is too early to really understand the long-term effects, but it is surely time to consider such things as energy policy, agricultural implications and food safety, aside from the economic impact.
Here is a book that does just that. It is academic in its approach but is no less readable because of this. Indeed, the way it looks at the impact that the disaster had on Japanese politics on a broader level is very entertaining.
In short, concludes the review, the study ‘highlights important considerations that Japan must address.’