"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

November Things

This post is both late and brief. It's finals week, what can I say?


I discovered an amazing snack the other day when I was craving something to carry me through a long study session - I'm not sure exactly what they're called, but they can mostly be summed up as crunchy seaweed peanut deliciousnesses. They're basically peanuts encased in a shell of seaweed-flavored crunch. Not only is the texture perfection and the taste wonderfully salty and savory, but they also come in a variety of patterns and colors, like marbles, depending on the type of seaweed, I suppose. I may need to buy myself a package for the plane flight home next week and then subtly suggest to the stewardesses that they hand these things out instead of bad cheesy-tomato snacks.


What I miss most about living in a warmer climate is getting outside, whether to sunbathe or take a hike. It's just not that appealing when it's so cold and dark out. So I've had to force myself to at least go outside on my way to another indoor space by, for example, going into town to look at the shops and their holiday decorations or taking myself to the movies. I saw a couple of really good films over the last few weeks: Amour, The Sapphires, and Silver Linings Playbook. Didn't have time to review them all, but I do recommend them (although you should only go see Amour if you like artsy, difficult films and don't mind having a messy feeling of happy and sad as you walk out of the movie theater). There are a few other films I wanted to see in theaters, but this week has been more devoted to watching movies at home because I needed to buckle down to work. Still, thank goodness movie theaters are staying afloat and open, because they are such a good antidote to winter cabin fever.


The Civil Wars. Ever since The Hunger Games came out, I've been hankering for more music like the song Safe and Sound and failing to find any similar songs by Taylor Swift. Eventually, I copped to the fact that I should try searching the music of The Civil Wars, who are featured in the song. Perfect. If you like The Avett Brothers or any kind of chill folksy music, check out their YouTube channel. They're really good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Review: The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald

I have to give a presentation on this book on Thursday, so I did another marathon Day of Reading today (there've been a lot of those lately). Now I'm too tired to read any of the articles and reviews I'll need to do my presentation properly, but I thought it might help to write down some impressions of the book here while it's still fresh in my mind.

This is not a book I would have finished if it weren't for class, but I'm very glad I did. It consists of four sections, each labeled with a name. They tell the stories (put together by an unnamed narrator whose life parallels Sebald's so closely that I had to look it up to make sure it was really a novel) of four Jewish men who emigrate from Germany to England or America over the course of the 20th century. 

The first thing that threw me off was that the sections are not equally weighted. The first is really brief, a glimpse into a life with which the narrator briefly crossed paths. But each section is longer than the one that precedes it, and each story is more nuanced, with more voices adding their perspectives (voices that the narrator gleans from journals, conversations, and interviews). The stories also seem to circle closer and closer to the Holocaust, from the lives it touched to the lives it ended, but the scope of all the narratives together covers both world wars and much other German, English, and American history besides.

What I thought would be a book about the Holocaust turned out to be a book with truly universal insights into the experience of exile. It's about the reasons people leave home and the things it does to them, a topic quite close to me right now.

But this book was also very interesting structurally. The text is interspersed with black and white photographs, which are presented as samples drawn from family photo albums that the narrator came across as he researched various personal histories. This was another reason that I kept thinking the book must be non-fiction, or at least thinly disguised fact. The photos are not cited, so either they really are photos of the people Sebald is writing about, or they are photos of other people, who remained anonymous - a slightly unnerving prospect. I'm very curious to find out more about the sources of these photos in researching book more, but for now the faces scattered throughout the book are a mystery to me.

(This connects to a discussion I had in class yesterday about para-text and the cover design of classic literature - trends like the endless reprints of Jane Austen with painted portraits of anonymous Austenesque women who sometimes have nothing distinguishing in common with the characters in the book. With newer books, I always find myself a bit puzzled by the number of covers with photos of stock models on them, often enough young women with their heads cut out of the frame. I'm never sure whether I'm supposed to imagine the characters as they appear on the cover or not. But Sebald seems to be pushing the envelope by blatently juxtaposing photos and text and seeing what happens. I'm not sure yet exactly what happens, but it was a different reading experience and it challenged my expectation of what fiction should look like.)

The other interesting structural choice is the way in which stories overlap and become confused as you progress through the four sections. This reminded me a lot of what Faulkner does with storytelling and the recollection of the past in Absalom, Absalom!, except that all his narrators circled around one particular family history, whereas Sebald's narrators are mostly all telling their own stories. It's just that those stories start to seem more and more like one story, with landscapes, memories, dreams, and names crossing and recrossing over time, over land, and over a constellation of individual consciousnesses.

I was warned before starting the book that Sebald can be a little dry, and it's true that his prose is nothing special or fancy. But he clearly has a lot of control over language and storytelling. I'd like now to go back and read this in the original German (I didn't realize it was a translation until I sat down to read it) and see what other reflections and echoes the writing might reveal among all the stories. In any case, I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would, and I'm intrigued and ready to learn more when I get to work on my presentation tomorrow.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Silver Linings Playbook

So I haven't done one of these for a while! But I love reviewing movies, almost as much as I love going to the movies, and last night I went to see Silver Linings Playbook as a way to get out of the house and see friends and get my mind off schoolwork for a few hours. I had seen the preview and thought it looked appealingly American and funny - two good qualities for a literature student in England, because, you know, a lot of dark and weird books to read and a lot of missing America. The movie wasn't exactly what I was expecting (although it is both very American and very funny), but the unexpected was all to the good. So here you go, a movie you should definitely see if you have any interest in what it's like to be diagnosed with a mental illness, or be undiagnosed with a mental illness, or fall in love, or fall out of love, or be American, or just be a person. I recommend it.
This picture basically sums up what I felt like during the first, maybe 15 minutes in the theater. Pat Solitano gets out of a mental hospital and goes back to live with his parents in Philadelphia and things aren't going well. For a while, it seems like the whole movie is going to be us following Pat's doomed attempt to "get in shape," physically and mentally, for his estranged wife, Nikki - doomed because she has a restraining order against him since he beat her lover to a pulp and got diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder. This isn't giving anything away, because all that drama is the starting point of the story. The real meat of it is what happens afterward, the story of dealing with a daily routine of no job and pills to take and trying to stay optimistic when the only goal you're clinging to is basically unreachable.
 The first sign of how good this movie is, and what a nuanced portrayal of mental illness it offers, is the sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious blend of financial and emotional disarray with unfailing optimism and really deep family love and loyalty that Pat finds in his parent's house. His mom's refrain at moments of crisis, that it's game day (the family, but mostly his dad, are big Philadelphia Eagles fans) and she's making 'crabby snacks', is so pitiful and yet delivered with such a bright hope that it seems to sums up everything about this family. Pat is still prone to violent episodes, his father has been banned from the Eagles stadium for getting in too many fights, and neither of them has a job while Pat's older brother is thriving in his work and his marriage. They all end up hurting each other with words and sometimes fists, but hurting each other is the last thing they want to do. It's refreshing to see family eccentricity portrayed alongside such palpable family love, to be able to laugh at them and feel for them without feeling caught out in either emotion.
Actually, it's not just a movie about family. It's also about a wider community, including Pat Sr.'s best friend who roots for the opposite team, Pat's friend from the hospital, who keeps trying to get out and being escorted back (a running joke but also a pretty heart-rending glimpse into the endless paperwork and bureaucracy in which he is trapped), and Pat's friend from before, whose marriage is making him crazier than the people who've been diagnosed with actual mental disorders.
And then there's Tiffany, that friend's wife's sister. (But before I say anything else, can we just take a moment to appreciate Jennifer Lawrence's face in this still? She's wonderful.) After her husband died, she got herself a diagnosis and plenty of pills, and there's a hilarious exchange between her and Pat where they compare notes on the horrible effects of various medications. The rest of the movie integrates her into Pat's quest to recover his life and his happiness, because she's searching for some of the same things.

 The relationship between these two doesn't progress in your classic rom-com or dramatic romance style. In fact, you're never really sure where they're headed, because they interact like real people - if a little more explosively, with more mortifying awkwardness and more drastic mood swings. They stutter and stumble and make fools of themselves and still manage to carry on and make something of it.
Throughout the twists and turns of the movie, the directors, actors, etc. manage to keep an impressive balance of pathos and humor. In other works that do the same, that combination can be pretty aggressive, making us pull up short mid-laugh as we come face-to-face with horror. But in this movie, the laughs are mixed more mildly with pangs of recognition and moments of real empathy. Over and over, it gave me exactly the kind of feeling you get in real life when things are so desperate they're funny, or when something so awkward and inappropriate just slipped out of your mouth that you have no choice but to laugh at yourself. There's a particular moment when Pat Sr. is enraged, out in the middle of the night in his pyjamas yelling at a neighbor's son who's been pestering them, and then, in the middle of his diatribe, he just stops and gives up his anger. You can see him just take that step back and realize how ridiculous the whole situation is and decide it's not worth his time. In a straight drama, he would bring his rage to a cathartic breaking point and come away with some deep realization. In a straight comedy his fury would grow to exaggerated proportions and be turned to comic effect. But here, we're allowed to be sorry and laugh, without feeling contradictory or hypocritical.
It's not really a spoiler to say that the movie has a happy ending, because it's not clear until near the very end what scenario would actually constitute a happy ending for Pat or anybody. But you don't feel cheated or condescended to by the ending any more than by the humor. This is an honestly and believably optimistic movie. Pat's drive to get better is a kind of American dream that's easy to get behind and rewarding. I walked out of the movie happy, not because I'd escaped into a fantasy utopia, but because I'd been given a new perspective on my world and my life that made things look no less hard, but much more full of silver linings.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


It's that time of year...
 When the reindeer start showing up in all the shop windows...
And all the mannequins start wearing scarves with their pyjamas.
So by special request from the lovely Sunnie, here are some photos of the lovely lights and holiday decorations that went up all over town a couple of weeks ago. Happy December!


 Well, maybe just frost. But still.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scrapbook II: Grey Days

Some more photos I didn't have a place for but wanted to share. This time around it's the grey days pictures, shading into night.

Scrapbook I: Sunny Days

 I've been going through my photos from the past few months and wanted to share a few that I liked particularly but that don't really fit together into any particular theme. So I grouped them into sunny-day pictures and grey-day pictures.

I threw this one into B&W just because I thought it looked nicer that way.

The same statue from two angles.


The one on the left has odd framing, but I like the impression of a stag just pausing on its way through London.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thoughts on reading lists and some literary greats

I spent this weekend in a strange and wonderful blur of pouring rain and brilliant sunshine, bubbling parties and quiet moments on trains, reading about the decadence of the Jazz Age and plunging myself into the decadence of both Thanksgiving dinner and an early Christmas dinner. Now that I'm back to the slow studious life after a few days of fast living, I thought I'd take some time to write about the books I've been reading (although the studious life is picking up the pace this week as we veer toward drafts of term papers and the end of the semester's syllabi).

Over the last few months, I've taken a whirlwind tour through Joyce's Dublin, Pynchon's California, Coetzee's South Africa, Nabokov's New England, Fitzgerald's Riviera, and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. Sounds pretty incoherent, but in fact I've never been so aware of the strings binding the literary cannon together as I have reading these books. Over and over, the same concerns, the same images, the same sorts of voices appear every time I crack the spine of a book (of course my professor's did design their courses to highlight conversations amongst certain authors, but they certainly didn't have far to stretch to find those points of contact). And yet the books on my shelf right now appear pretty varied in their times, places, and effects.

I was thinking particularly about Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Within the context of my reading list, they are relatively close in both time and place (both American, both written in the first half of the 20th century), and their themes overlap at the very least in the fact that they both tackle and develop the metaphoric repercussions of incest. (Side note: I find the daily life of a literature student is a lot less staid than you might imagine, which you realize when you start bringing up pedophilia, incest, and/or rape in dinner conversations or musing aloud on some of Freud's more ridiculous sexual symbolisms.)

Both books also blend into the general world of modernism - i.e. in this instance, experiments with the structures of written language and the effect of shifting but deeply personal narrative voices on the telling of a story - with Faulkner channeling the slightly desperate voices of multiple generations of a family in post-Civil War America and Fitzgerald the dissolute tones of a cast of American ex-patriots in post-WWI Europe.

But reading these novels in proximity to each other, I was struck by a really significant difference if not in the books themselves, then in my experience of them. Absalom impressed me in large part because I cannot begin to conceive of writing a book like it or even imagine how Faulkner might have come up with, developed, or brought to fruition his idea - or even what that original idea was. Reading it was like being presented with a perfectly blended bisque or a fabulous pastry and enjoying the flavors and textures while having no idea what ingredients went into their making.  

Tender, on the other hand, felt to me to have a looser weave, one I could pull apart slightly in order to peer back at Fitzgerald's intent (or at least my interpretation of his intent). I can imagine him imagining the novel, summing it up in a few sentences for his friends or publishers, holding the arc of the book in his mind. I can't imagine Faulkner doing anything but standing up from his desk with the finished manuscript in his hands.

I would like, of course, to be able to write like both of these men, because their work is equally compelling and inspiring to me. But the more I read, the more I think about writing my own books, and the more I wonder what sort of books I might write. Right now, I think I want to write every kind of book there is, but I'm not sure whether it would be easier to tackle the kind of story I can contain whole in my mind or the kind where I would just have to jump in feet first at one end and swim all the way to the other. Both sound somewhat intimidating (especially when you start measuring yourself up against William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald) but also fairly thrilling. If anything, I will certainly come out on the other side of this year with plenty to aspire to and an impetus to start practicing my swim strokes.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Books to the power of wonderful

I suppose I could have written this post a few weeks ago, but I was busy and I forgot, and then I was reading what one of my good friends wrote about her experience reading Eat, Pray, Love after moving to a new state, and that made me want to catch up with my life and write down some thoughts about books and the people who write them and the people who read them.

When I first moved to England, knowing no one, starting courses at a new university in a new country, feeling generally both excited and terrified, there were a few days of odd limbo. Classes hadn't started yet, although I had gotten all settled into my new house and was attending various orientation events and trying to meet a lot of new people at once. But when I needed a break from introducing myself and playing the names and faces game, I was pretty lonely, so I bought a book.

It happened to be Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan's latest novel, and it happened to be wonderful and a romantic spy story that was equally indulgent and inspiring, a good story packaged as good literature (that rare combination that McEwan creates so brilliantly). But what's funny is that this scenario had all happened to me before, two years ago, when I arrived for my semester abroad in France. Equally, if not more, alienated and confused and excited-but-terrified, I looked for refuge in the small collection of books sitting in the common room of where I was living. I picked up the only book in English I saw: The Innocent by Ian McEwan.

To make this parallel even more bizarre, The Innocent is also a spy story, less romantic and more gruesome. I remember lying in bed late at night reading to the end, utterly caught up in the story and the suspense, and being so grateful for the little respite it offered me from the challenge of learning a new city/country/world.

Both books were particularly suited to my need because both are about young people entering new and unfamiliar worlds as they try to define themselves and their lives - in The Innocent, Leonard Marnham arrives in Cold War Berlin from England and gets embroiled in love and some very challenging ethics questions; in Sweet Tooth, Serena Frome graduates from Cambridge only to find herself recruited by MI5 and whisked into a world of secret money, assumed identities, and very high stakes love affairs. OK, so I was just going to school in other countries, but still, it was nice to read about their adventures as a break from my own.

So here I was, smiling to myself over the odd coincidence and the very great pleasure which a pair of fine novels in the face of difficulty can bestow. And then Ian McEwan turned up at my university to give an interview and sign books, and I got the chance to tell him how much his books meant to me and why. This was incredibly important for me, and I'm so lucky to have had that chance. It made me realize how little we get to express our thanks to people who inspire us in a manner more personal than a standing ovation or a high number of sales of a book. And I got to stand face to face with one of my favorite authors and thank him for his work, got to express my feelings (if briefly and very nervously) about a book to the person who wrote it.

So yeah, it's not often the people who read books and who write them get to meet, but it's all the more wonderful maybe for being rare and special. I saw another example of this when I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer and crowded into tents with other book-lovers to hear authors talk about their work and answer audience questions and the body heat generated by a bunch of people squeezed into that special space seemed to be charged with a massive energy of excitement and thrilled-to-be-here-ment that was infectious. Reading a book may be a pretty solitary, quiet activity most of the time, but it can generate big emotions, and sometimes it's just awesome to share that bigness out loud.

P.S. Speaking of books and talking about them with others, I know I said I would do a lot of reviews of/posts about the books I've been reading for my course, and I haven't much at all. But I'm going to try to do more of that because I love writing about books and I want to write down some of my thoughts about the ones I've liked best or learned the most from this semester before I settle into new books and the old ones fly out of my head. So stay tuned.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

London: The Burrough Market

Here are some pictures...
 ...from Londonnnnnn!
Among other things last weekend, I visited the incredible Burrough Market, a haven of deliciousness. It was a bit difficult to capture it in pictures because I was too busy eating and gawking and it was really crowded, but I tried to get a little of the flavor (no pun intended...actually, who am I kidding, the pun is always intended) of the place.

I didn't even notice the wonderful names on these jars until I looked back at this picture. It was the labels that caught my eye.