"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, August 15, 2012

A Visit to the Natural History Museum

Yesterday I spontaneously popped into the Natural History Museum on my way into town. Two hours later, I re-emerged and continued on my way, and what a great way to spend an afternoon.

The building itself is worth the visit (which by the way is free, although I donated my spare change because I had such a nice time). It's quite old and was the venue of a famous debate in the 1800s about The Origin of Species. Unlike most museums, it consists of a single room with a lower and upper gallery and an iron-and-glass roof that makes it more reminiscent of a train station. Both levels are circumscribed by a colonnade, with larger stone columns interspersed with smaller ones, each made from a different kind of stone found in the British Isles.

Amongst all this architecture are probably hundreds of glass cases containing specimens, from a bat skeleton to a stuffed Capybera. The museum also has the wonderful oddity of letting visitors touch certain exhibits, like a stuffed cheetah or the fossilized remains of dinosaur eggs (which I found particularly thrilling). So in addition to seeing the amazing animals, you get to see the amazement on the faces of adults and children as they reach out to caress the fur of a cheetah.

In fact, one of the things that struck me most about the whole experience was the beauty of negative space, as in, the shapes of empty space created by objects. The openings between the iron-work in the roof create a beautiful pattern on the glass cases when the sun shines through, as well as a dazzling mosaic to gaze up at from the lower gallery. As you walk along the upper gallery, the view down to the lower floor is filtered through the row of columns. The cases, of course, create a lot of unreachable empty space, a sort of cushion of air that separates us from the more delicate specimens. And best of all, the skeletons reveal the amazing architecture of space in living bodies, from the gaping sockets where an elephant's tusks should fit to the delicate barrel of the ribcage in infinite variations of size and shape.

Because I was on my own, I wandered around quite slowly but not systematically, and took pictures of everything that caught my fancy. I don't normally take pictures in museums, but because I was in no rush, it felt OK, and not like I was distracting from my experience of the exhibits. On the contrary, each specimen felt entirely real and very immediate. The permission to touch some of them was a perfect way of reminding me that what I was viewing was very, very real, and of recreating every few minutes the thrill of realization that I was actually in the presence of some incredibly beautiful and exotic phenomena. It's amazing how a hall full of skeletons and stuffed birds can give you knowledge and excitement about living things. This was definitely an experience that convinced me that the beauty of the universe is a more-than-sufficient object of my faith and wonder.

So, enough talk, here are some pictures, which I hope will give you a bit of the same feelings. Let me know in the comments if there are other natural history museums you've loved or that I simply must visit!

An exhibit window full of specimens that either relate to or actually inspired characters from Alice in Wonderland, including the Oxford Dodo (it was in the case next door), but also the White rabbit, holding an actual pocket watch and a very distempered-looking bird. Speaking of which...
Why is a raven like a writing desk? Conveniently next to the Alice case, this writing desk was just sitting there and not looking anything like a raven.
This illustration reminded me of the villain in Up for some reason.

The skeletons were really intriguing and surprisingly expressive. I tried to capture what I was talking about earlier, that feeling of empty space contained within the bones.

 I'm not sure these pictures convey it, it's tricky to translate into two dimensions.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

More sunny Oxford days

We've been blessed with a few more glorious summer days, so I took tried to spend most of the last two days outside. And just as one of the best things about rainy days is sitting in a cozy armchair and reading a novel, one of the best things about sunny days, I think, is lying in the grass and reading a novel. So out I set, first to the bookstore:

On the way, I admired this cool wall/poster thing they set up outside the construction site of the new Bodleian library extension. It showcases very awesome stuff they have in their collection:

Then I bought a new book, whose cover alone has been catching my eye in various bookstores for months. Spoiler alert: it's quite good so far.

Then I wandered around Oxford a little, threading through clumps of tourists and wedding parties, and photographed a few little details that caught my eye as I went:

 Brain-coral columns and four types of pavement.
 A lovely door that won't let me in to a lovely college (note chain holding it almost shut).

  Puppy and lion gargoyles.

 Oh, what's that? Just a sign announcing the presence of a film crew shooting scenes for the final season of Lewis, the Oxford mystery show. I saw the actual shooting a few weeks ago, stars and all. This time just the sign. 

Finally I arrived at the park, picked a nice tree, settled down under it and opened my new book. There was a tennis tournament happening across the lawn, a smattering of tennis players in white, the comforting thunk of tennis balls meeting rackets, a white marquis tent, and an old-fashioned jazz band playing just loud enough that the strains of music wafted over to where I was sitting. All sorts of people were out and about, playing pick-up soccer, having picnics, taking naps on the grass. The sun was warm, the breeze cool. Perfect bliss. It must be said for cities (despite the bustle, or maybe because of it) that their parks can be really absolutely wonderful.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: Wolf Hall

I mentioned a few times already that I was reading this book, and now finally I get to review it for you all, having finished it a couple of days ago. It's a book I'm very happy to recommend.

Basically, if you like historical fiction, you will probably love it. And if you don't like historical fiction, you may not love it, but it's worth a try.

In this book, Hilary Mantel, whose other books (which are many) I definitely want to read now, tells the story of Henry VIII and his wife-troubles, a well-worn tale. Except that she actually tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, which is one of the things that makes this book distinct from and better than most historical novels. Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, who rose to become assistant to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry's closest adviser.

He is a brilliant choice of narrator, because of course he lends an outsider's perspective on the world of court intrigue and theological finagling that characterize this period of English royal history. According to Mantel at least (I'm not sure how much information exists about Cromwell and how much she had to extrapolate), Cromwell traveled extensively in Europe as a youth and learned many languages and many skills, from the appraisal of fabrics to the secrets of fine cooking. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the important players in the story - where they come from, their positions at court, how much money they have, where they spend it, whom they owe and who owes them, and how he can manipulate all those pieces of information in order to advance the interests of....well, that's the question in this book. It's never quite clear, for any character, whose interests they are seeking to advance. But another thing that makes Cromwell a good narrator is that he at least seems to have very sympathetic and human motivations: he wants what's good for the realm, for his friends and family, for future generations, and of course for himself as well.

If you've seen any of the TV show The Tudors, you'll remember Cromwell as a sneaky-looking little person, unattractive in contrast to, for example, Sir Thomas More as played by Jeremy Northam (or in his earlier incarnation in A Man for All Seasons, by Paul Scofield). Mantel's Cromwell is not any more physically attractive - he's often compared to a bulldog - but he is infinitely more charming, sympathetic and fascinating. Henry's reign marked a real change in English history and coincided with a whole lot of other changes going on in the rest of Europe, including the Reformation. In order to interpret this period, Mantel offers us a thoroughly progressive man. I hesitate to say 'modern,' because never does this book feel untrue to the time. As he alternately bemoans the way life is speeding up and relishes new technological advances, Cromwell proves that he would thrive in any era, making him the ideal interpreter of the past to an audience of the present.

Aside from her protagonist, Mantel's other strength is her writing. Yes, this is a historical novel, and yes, there is a lot of political machination and many, many names to keep track of. She handles it beautifully. There are charts of the royal family and lists of dramatis personae at the front of the book, but I only had to look back at them once or twice. She keeps things consistently clear and, an even greater feat, exciting. I had to stop watching The Tudors half-way through the first season, despite my appreciation of the historical eye-candy, because I was bored. I knew what was going to happen with Anne Boleyn and Catherine and Henry and also what came after. Mantel overcomes this issue by enriching the old story with new detail. I became caught up, not in what was going to happen, but in how it was going to happen.

Anne, for example, instead of being a distant but attractive figure, is given a complex and strong voice. Her intimate conversations with Cromwell during and after the years-long process it took for her to become queen of England feel like a too-good-to-be-true peek behind the historical curtain. Mantel rewards you for all your hard work remembering people's names and court positions by letting you in on their jokes, their sadnesses, the petty details of their lives. One of my favorite details is that Cromwell and the French ambassador, Chapuys, keep up an appearance of chilly distance for diplomatic reasons but privately enjoy each other's company, sharing multi-lingual repartee and an appreciation of good food.

It's a long book, and I can't give the full scope of its brilliance in this post, but if any of this piques your interest, do check out the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which continues the story of Anne's brief reign and, I believe, carries on to Jane Seymour's turn as queen. Given how intriguingly Mantel presents Jane's character in Wolf Hall, I can't wait.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How I went to England and my life turned into a Chinese sitcom

One of my neighbors here is a student from China. What we have in common is that we spend a lot of time in the communal kitchen making our respective lunches and dinners. The strange thing is that she is always cooking for her boyfriend, and they spend the entire time talking to each other in Chinese (I'm not sure what variant).

So there's me, making pasta or rice or something, often listening to the radio for some music and a bit of news about the latest Olympic medals.

And there's them, making an elaborate, three-part meal of stewed green beans and pressure-cooked duck and baked salmon, talking very animatedly in Chinese.

What's so strange about this experience is the contrast between the cacophony of languages and voices - the girl chattering away, the guy laughing at whatever she's saying, the BBC radio announcer exulting about another Team GB gold medal and/or the (usually American) singer crooning on the radio, the sizzle of meat, the rattle of pots and pans, sometimes even the rain pouring outside - and the silence that is me, not talking to anyone, just listening to all of this.

As a student of languages and a generally curious being, I find it interesting to listen to the modulations in the couple's voices and try to guess what their talking about, especially when they slip in an English word or two, like "Facebook." It also feels bizarrely like I've walking into a movie without subtitles. But I also hope that if I meet some other international students when I arrive at my new university, we'll be able to get past the stage of polite greetings and I'll be able to join in the conversation. It sounds like fun. The boyfriend laughs a lot.

I guess I could muscle my way in and start a conversation. But then I wouldn't get to imagine a crazy secret Chinese-language life for them, and who wouldn't want that? It makes cooking dinner into a much more interesting experience.

Drawings: Peter Parker & Gwen Stacy + Katniss Everdeen

One of the few books I managed to squeeze into my suitcase for this trip is a sketch book. I find that drawing brings me a lot of calm and focus, and it's a nice way to spend time with whatever images are swirling through my head, something that's especially important while traveling and exploring, I think. Not that the images are always of what I'm seeing around me. Sometimes I sit down to sketch a landscape in front of me, as a way of enjoying it more and noticing more of its details. But sometimes I like to revisit something more familiar.

So today I'm sharing a couple of drawings I did over the last two days. The first, which I actually drew second, is a little sketch I did the day after finally seeing The Amazing Spider-Man, which was wonderful. I'm not very good at likenesses, and this was done from memory, because I didn't have a picture of either actor handy, but I had fun doing it.

I discovered while doing this drawing that working on sketches in a coffee shop is a great idea. First, because you can surreptitiously peer at people to see how faces look in profile and where the eye brow actually hits the line of the brow. Second, because, especially if you sit next to a small child, you get automatic encouragement from the fact that they are constantly trying to see what you're drawing. It makes you feel like you're preparing something super-secret or super-awesome.

The other drawing was initially just going to be a random sketch, but it turned into a portrait of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss from The Hunger Games. I did have to look up the mockingjay pin to see how it was shaped.

Again, I'm not sure it looks like her. But it was fun to do, especially the braid.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Mystery of the Flame Juggler

Cornmarket is one of the busiest streets in Oxford, and I walk down it often, because it's pedestrian only and leads to various of my favorite haunts, like Marks & Spencer. Along the way, I'm lucky to have not only a whole lot of people watching to do, but also a soundtrack, because the street is lined with buskers ranging from a guy playing a ragtime song on his guitar to a young opera singer to a pair of young men playing some really enchanting but hard to place music on the cello.

And then there is the flame juggler. He's almost always there when I pass along the street, tossing and catching three flaming torches. Or at least they look like flaming torches. The question that's been plaguing me is: is the fire real?

Evidence in support of the real fire theory:
1. He sets out a rope to create a 2 meter boundary around himself so that people don't get too close.
2. His face and hands are sooty.
3. The flames look real enough.

Evidence against the real fire theory:
1. He could be doing the boundary thing and making his face sooty just to make us think it's real.
2. The flames don't seem to give off any smoke, either visible or smellable.
3. It would be crazy dangerous if he were using real fire.

So the chances are about 50-50 right now. Clearly, I need to deepen my investigation, for example by observing him when it starts raining or when he ignites and/or quenches the flames. I'll let you know if I ever figure it out.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An Excursion to the Palace

On Wednesday, I took myself out on an excursion to Blenheim Palace, the home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill.

If I remember right from the guided tour I took (I was a little distracted by all those giant family portraits and all that 24-karat gold leaf on the ceilings), it was built after the War of Spanish Succession on grounds that the crown offered to the Duke as a recompense for valor in battle. But even though the palace has its origins in war, the main dining room is devoted to peace, with trompe l'oeil paintings of deputies from various countries coming together in a grand colonnade. The rest of the state rooms I saw are very heavily decorated in English and French baroque styles, with sweeping views of the palace grounds.

I spent most of the day wandering around outside, marveling at the expanses of sloping lawns and vistas of the tree-lined lake. The ground were carefully landscaped by one of the previous dukes, and the lake was actually artificially dug out, but they were apparently very good at landscaping back then, because it looks very natural and the prospect from almost every point in the park is very pleasing to the eye. Here are some photos, then, from my rambles that day.


Friday, August 3, 2012

July Things

1. The Olympics

Did you know that the BBC Sport website is showing all of the olympics in live stream. Not only that, you can catch up on everything that's already happened, which is what I'm doing right now with the men's synchronized diving, and oh my god, this is brilliant. They're perfectly in synch, down to their every step, even as they approach the edge of the diving board.

Before that, I was catching up on the women's gymnastics, also amazing. I particularly like the parallel bars. Just wow.

2. Walking

I've been going on lots of long rambles since I got to England, some through the city, something through the country. I really like exploring on foot, and so far the weather has been allowing me lots of freedom to do so. I'll be posting pictures soon of my day of walking through the grounds of Blenheim Palace the other day.

3. Book Covers

I've been spending a lot of time in the local bookshops over the last two weeks - I find it's a wonderful refuge from the rush of a city or the onslaught of new sights and sounds. I just step inside and immerse myself in the smell and feel and aesthetic balm of new books. And I've been spending a lot of time just browsing the shelves, admiring cover designs, comparing different editions.

4. Fresh Bread

When you're traveling, and suddenly all the food is different, and you can't find your favorite familiar brands, you can really start to appreciate things that offer the same soothing goodness in far off places, like fresh baked bread. I found a couple of great delis and bakeries to turn to in the neighborhood, and was very happy when I did.