"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, October 31, 2012

Thoughts on the perfect party

At the perfect party...

...everyone dresses up, whether in a silly costume, their softest pyjamas, or their best evening attire.

...there are enough seats for everyone, but no one stays sitting in the same seat the whole time.

...you meet new people and catch up with old friends.

...everyone is free to enjoy a drink or two, but no one feels pressured to get drunk.

...the guests compliment the hostess/host not only by saying the the food, but also by taking second helpings.

...one or two couples or groups arrive on time, and a few more later in the evening to add new energy to the group, and everyone leaves by midnight.

...there aren't too many dishes to do, and you can chill out after everyone leaves by standing at the sink letting the warm water run over your hands and carefully stacking clean dishes in the dish drain.

...no one talks about religion or politics.

...there are multiple spaces in which people can wander and plenty of nooks, balconies, gardens, sofas, kitchen counters that people can group easily around.

...one of the guests is a great photographer and snaps pictures of the evening for future nostalgia.

In other news, Happy Halloween! Hope you all get to attend or throw perfect parties today.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

October Things

N.B. Further inspired by Kristina Horner i.e. italktosnakes and her 'Things I'm Into' videos, I'm gonna try to categorize these monthly posts a little more and make them less random. If you haven't already, go check out her videos. Here's a link to the latest 'Things I'm Into.'


Since the weather keeps getting colder, baking has become a big thing in my house. I absolutely love cakes, muffins, cookies, tarts, pies, mousses, scones, biscuits, breads, and anything else you can think of that contains flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. But I also love the process of baking, the sense of accomplishment that comes from turning raw ingredients into a finished, delicious whole. It's especially lovely at this time of year because ingredients like apples and pears can be incorporated and the winter spices are coming into their prime - who doesn't love a splash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or clove? I'll try to report here if I try any particularly amazing recipes. For now, I'm planning what to bake for the Halloween party my housemates and I are throwing.


Again, the days are getting shorter and colder, so I've been hunting for some good ways to while away the long dark evenings. Since I spend all day reading, I'm less tempted by novels, although I've started reading some poetry and short stories for a change of pace in the evenings. But my favorite two evening activities these days are knitting and watching web series.

I just took up knitting, with the intention of making myself some warm accessories in time for winter, and I've found it to be the perfect accompaniment to watching movies and TV. Or, even better, a web series like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or the LBD. I just caught up on the first 50 or so episodes of this series, and I can highly recommend it to any fan of Jane Austen or to anyone who could sympathize with the struggles of a group of young women making the transition from school to life and juggling family, romance, sex, careers, friendships, and creative aspirations.

If you haven't heard of it, here's a brief run-down. It's basically the first ever adaptation of classic literature to a vlog format, and the creators happen to have chosen the wonderful Pride and Prejudice as their classic book. They've done an amazingly inventive job so far of updating the story to present-day USA and adjusting it to fit the format of short video blogs featuring Lizzie Bennet and her sisters and acquaintances.

But my favorite part about this show isn't the great comic timing and convincing acting from the four young women stars (Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, and Charlotte) or the way they take turns impersonating other characters, who never actually appear on screen but whom we see hilariously filtered through Lizzie's sarcastic gaze, in such a way that we see Lizzie's flaws at the same time as sympathizing with her trials. No, my favorite part is the way that the writers have updated the challenges facing young women in Austen's era to those facing young women today. These girls are not just about finding husbands (although Mrs. Bennet, predictably, is). They're also looking for jobs and outlets for their passions and artistic impulses. The best moment of the series so far (aside from some utterly hilarious Darcy impersonations by the various girls) was when the odious Mr. Collins, instead of proposing marriage, proposes a business partnership - an offer just as life-changing and difficult to manage as marriage would be for the original Elizabeth Bennet.

Actually, though, I have to revise this and say that all this comes second to the real best part of the series, which is that the 5th Bennet sister, Kitty, is reincarnated, in this version, as the family cat. Kitty Bennet. Best idea ever.


One of the best things about October is the way it makes you completely reevaluate your wardrobe and gives you a different perspective on all the various odd bits of clothing you own - because what better place to look for a Halloween costume than in your own closet? I'm currently debating a few costume ideas (last-minute, I know), but whichever one I choose will come mostly from elements of clothing I already have. As much as I would love to sew something elaborate and amazing, I don't have the time, so I'm contenting myself with re-imagining things I own and possibly picking up a few fun accessories to give old clothes a new spin.

But of course October also brings wonderful everyday fashion options, like pairing up a bunch of autumnal colors or nestling into a chunky scarf or a warm coat. I find that bright colors and warm layers make the cold and the grey skies infinitely more bearable, and I certainly need lots of brightness and warmth to survive the cold snap that just descended on England. Brrrrrrrr.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A peek inside the mind of a literature student (...or maybe it's just me...)

I've now spent a little over a month being a full-time student of 20th century literature. As you might imagine, it involves reading a lot of books, but instead of having raced through an impressive number of volumes during the last weeks, I've actually been reading the same book. Have you guessed it? Yes, I've been reading Ulysses. But in about 24 hours, I will have graduated to person-who-has-read-Ulysses (and if I'm aggrandizing the accomplishment, it's only because I need a reward to get me through the last hundred pages).

It's been an interesting experience, to keep reading a book that I don't fully understand for a month - an experience, I suspect, that only students of literature enjoy. Without the certain knowledge that you will have to get up one morning every week and go sit in a room with five or ten other people for three hours talking about this book, it's harder to push through those next fifty pages before stumbling downstairs to the kitchen for sustenance. Part of me is resentful at my professor for thinking it was a good idea to assign this book as the first reading of my grad school career. But another part of me is grateful because 1) nothing I read for the rest of the year will be this hard and 2) reading Ulysses is like a crash course in how to be a literature student, or as Joyce would put it, a "learning knight" (don't quote me on that, because it might not be exact, but there's no way I'm flipping through 800 pages to find that quote again).

Everybody reads (or almost everybody), so when you think about it, it seems every person who enjoys a good book should have the qualifications to study literature. You could make the same argument for science, for example: everyone lives in their body, so they should be, theoretically, ready to launch into the study of anatomy or biology. But that example reveals the flaw in the idea, because obviously the biologist brings a very different set of skills and curiosities to her job. She doesn't just enjoy the workings of her body, she examines them and finds patterns and probes mysteries and carries out elaborate experiments to test her theories. A literature student is no different. He enjoys books, sure, but he also dissects them, picks them apart, and tries to sort out all the pieces so he can fit them back together again. It's like the difference between a person who listens to the radio and a kid who takes apart a radio to see how it works. Both things are pleasurable, both expand the mind, and both increase the scope of human knowledge, but they're very different.

So basically, I've been discovering what it's like to be the kid who takes apart the radio. (Not that I haven't studied literature before, but I've taken different approaches and haven't done it so intensely before.) And what I've discovered is that literature students should be called literature detectives. This idea came out of reading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 while still struggling through Ulysses. The former is about a woman, Oedipa Maas, trying to discover a secret behind the estate left behind by her former lover, a process which leads her further and further into a kind of paranoid detective work with no clear solution at the end of the book. She thinks she sees patterns, but she's never sure, and neither are you (the reader), because the intricate skein of connections and reflections Pynchon sets out might actually be all inside Oedipa's head.

Over the course of Pynchon's (miraculously short) 120 pages, I started to see weird patterns myself, but not the way Oedipa does. Instead of seeing mysterious symbols scrawled on bathroom walls and miniaturized on postage stamps, I say mysterious symbols printed out in times new roman between the pages of books. It turns out that reading books like Ulysses and The Crying of Lot 49 (or any book, really, when you're reading it like a literature detective does) is a lot like sifting through a dead man's estate with the suspicion that it hides a centuries-old secret and that if you just spend enough time with it, everything will become clear and it'll all add up. You have the dead guy (the famous dead white man author, and variants thereon, because living women of color can be just as confusing), you have the centuries of other literature to which they make cryptic allusion, and you have the words on the page, the endless pieces of paper that may or may not offer clues to the meaning of the whole.

So this is the state of mind of the literature student. I read a chapter of Ulysses and try to sort out the various symbols and references Joyce is playing with. Then, later that day, or the next, I read another book and look for other symbols, other key words, other connections. And for the rest of the week, I can't turn that part of my brain off. I keep doing the detective work everywhere I go. My mind is swirling with character names, images flitting by, memories that I then realize aren't memories, but rather something I read this morning - James Joyce's memories, most likely.

And the thing is that the real world is actually connected to the books I'm reading. Say I have an experience riding the bus or doing my grocery shopping that reminds me of something in the book I was reading the day before, and suddenly that bit of fiction makes more sense and I understand what it was the author was trying to capture about human experience. Or my mind wanders toward lunch as I'm sitting in class and then I realize that that's exactly what Leopold Bloom would be thinking about too, if he were somehow sitting around discussing the novel in which he is a character. These aren't tangible clues, but they are nevertheless keys to the books. When you're a literature student, it makes no sense to keep work and life segregated like food carefully nestled in different compartments of a microwavable meal. Books are better, I find, when their flavors mix with everyday experience, when you allow them to affect your life and visaversa, when you keep an eye out for clues in all sorts of unlikely places (a sentiment I think Joyce, champion of the everyday, would applaud, or maybe just nod thoughtfully at before he returned to writing a really complicated book).

OK, I'm starting to mix my metaphors and it's obviously time for second breakfast. Sorry for the break in regular posts and for the lengthiness of this one. I hope to be sharing thoughts more regularly this week, because as you can see, reading lots of books is giving me lots of thoughts.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


It's not for nothing that people here insist on calling it autumn instead of fall. Although September was far less glorious than it is back home, October is slowly seducing me with its alternating mists and bright skies, with the soft, chunky layers it forces us to don, and with the glow it lends colors like umber, mustard, burgundy, and sunshine yellow. I've been indulging in strong melted cheeses, deep green broccoli, dense soft pancakes, and pan-friend apple slices. Even the cold is getting more manageable, less incapacitating.

I simply cannot wait for Thanksgiving, but I'm savoring the slow build up to it. I miss the warmth of the sun, but I'm learning to love the heat of the radiator and, of course, the hot cup of tea.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A collection of thoughts from a frustrated feminist

When I tell people that I graduated last spring from a women's college or that I'm thinking about joining the feminist society at my new school, I get enough puzzled looks to make me feel a little self-conscious about it. I even met a couple of guys who responded by saying they were in favor of equality, not feminism. Really, did they think I meant that I hated men or wanted to institute some tyrannical matriarchy?

The other day I went to a talk given by a prominent UK radio host. He was funny and interesting and I really enjoyed his talk, but at the end he told an amusing anecdote about a school where students relabeled bathrooms as "bathroom with urinal" and "bathroom without urinal" instead of men's room and women's room. The punchline was something along the lines of, 'if transgender students can't even figure out which bathroom to use, why are they going to university?'

This is very frustrating because I come from just such a school, and I've been lucky enough to talk to people who've given me a real perspective on arbitrary divisions like the one we draw between bathrooms with urinals and without. But so far I have always been on the receiving end of the education in society/gender awareness. And it's hard to start the conversation when I'm the one who's going to have to explain why that division is arbitrary and why that joke reflected an uninformed opinion from someone who clearly has never read Judith Butler.

Earlier in the week, I was walking home from the university pub with friends after a night out. All the people we passed were undergraduate students heading to a party with the theme of middle school, so they were all decked out in variations on a classic school uniform. Except that almost all of the girls we passed would probably get detention for wearing their skirts too short. I don't want to generalize about a country I just moved to, but young women in England seem to wear their skirts and trousers shorter than even the girls in southern California. What's bizarre is that in California, people wear short shorts because anything else might be unbearably hot. But here, people wear even shorter shorts despite the fact that it's absolutely freezing.

I think it's actually the temperature issue, silly though it may seem, that makes me troubled with this fashion trend. When I see a girl wearing a short, flouncy sundress on a hot day, it makes me happy to see her enjoying her body and not compromising her physical comfort to someone else's standard of modesty. But when I see a girl walking down the street at 11pm in cold weather wearing a tank top and a skirt that barely covers her underpants, it makes me sad to see her torturing herself in order to conform to the norm.

I realize this is a flawed logic. Maybe the girl in California doesn't actually like wearing sundresses and only does it to fit in with her friends. And maybe the girl in England just loves the feeling of the cold wind on her bare legs. And maybe if I saw a guy on the same street in England walking around without his shirt on, I wouldn't think he was being stupid and shallow - it might even cross my mind to admire his fortitude and endurance against the cold. Which would be a total double standard.

Basically, this has been bothering and puzzling me. I really don't want to cramp or judge anyone's style, but there's just something about the spectacle of a hundred young women all dressed in skirts the same, very short, length that makes me cringe. Or at least furrow my brow as I try to figure out how I would like to respond to that.

So, I may go ahead and join the feminist society. But in the meantime, if any of you have thoughts on these issues, please share them in the comments! I would love to make this a conversation instead of just mulling it over myself.

Friday, October 5, 2012

September Things

1. Cooking

Since I moved into my share house at my new 'uni,' as they say here, I've been trying to balance grabbing quick meals at the cafeteria with lots of cooking time. For the first time in many years, I've moved out of the dorms and into a real person house, with a real person kitchen that I can keep my food in and that I only share with a few other people.

This makes me so happy, because walking downstairs and spending a half-hour stirring and chopping and tasting is one of the absolute best study breaks, especially when you've just moved to a cold place and going outside for a walk involves lots of clothes and cold hands. (That said, I do want to go explore the area more on foot. But that might wait til I get a good winter coat.)

But cooking in this particular house involves particular challenges. First, our fridge is very small. I marked out my fridge territory early, but it only consists of half-a shelf. One of my housemates calls putting away the groceries 'fridge tetris.' So I am developing mad skills not only in fitting lots of odd-shaped food objects into a compact space, but also in buying items that will either be used up quickly or be useful for a variety of different dishes. I really dislike eating the same thing every day, so I'm having to get very clever about how many different ways I can use carrot sticks or a tub of ricotta cheese.

Second, an English shop does not equal an American grocery store. I've had trouble finding something as basic (at least to me) as cornmeal in Marks & Spencer. There are really nice things about shopping there, though, like the fact that they prep your veggies for you so that you can buy a little bag of chopped butternut squash instead of having to wage war with an entire one when you get home.

Adjustments and annoyances aside, I'm having a lot of fun cooking. It's like a little game I'm playing with puzzles that occupy my mind during the walk home and, of course, delicious rewards when I solve the puzzle correctly.

Well that was long. Moving on.

2. Collared shirts and sweaters.

I've finally understood the brilliance of the fashion trend that has everyone buttoning up their collared shirts to the neck and pulling a sweater over it. Not only does it keep your neck warmer, it also makes it possible to vary your outfits in cold weather where no matter what cute t-shirt you put on, you also have to put sweaters and jackets over it. I do kind of like wearing nice things just for myself, knowing that I'm wearing a bright red t-shirt when all others see is my grey sweater. But it's also fun to let people know that you do actually change your clothes every day, and a cute little shirt collar peeking out of your sweater is a fun way to do that.

3. Conversation skills

If nothing else, the last two weeks have taught me that developing superior conversation skills is something I really want to do. When I say 'superior,' I don't mean I want to be better than everyone I'm talking to. In fact, if everyone wants to join me in making better conversation, that would make me really happy. What I mean is that I want to get beyond the inane and repetitive conversation that I've encountered so much recently.

First I was really just annoyed at how my conversations kept revolving around the same topics (where are you from, what are you studying, why did you choose this school, etc, etc, etc). And then at some point I realized that I'm half the problem. When people ask me those questions, I respond in kind instead of coming up with something more interesting or unusual to ask or comment on.

Yesterday I had an extremely annoying conversation about whether or not English food is good or bad. Here's a piece of advice. Don't have that conversation. It's boring. If the two parties disagree, you just end up arguing over it. If you agree, then there's not much to discuss, is there? Afterwards, I felt silly for not asking this person a good question, something specific that would get them talking about their course or about anything, really, that wasn't what was in front of us on our plates.

Realistically, of course, some people just aren't willing to talk about things that would interest me, because they find them boring. This particular person seems, from what I've heard so far not to enjoy learning, for example. There's not much I can do with that, because I love learning - and what is a good conversation if not a chance to learn something new about yourself or your interlocutor? But nonetheless, the experience resolved me to try harder to draw people out and be a more interesting person myself.

So, this has been a post about things beginning with C. You can now picture me holding conversations while cooking and wearing collared shirts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: Gilead

I came to this book straight off of Ian McEwan's new novel, Sweet Tooth, which is a romantic spy story, so when I was faced with the prospect of an elderly reverand from Iowa writing a letter to his son (the premise of Gilead), I was a little discouraged. However, since I was reading this for class, I stuck with it, and it's amazing how this book grows on you. By the end I was practically in tears. So first of all, I must say that if you choose to read this book, then please be patient with it. It really is brilliant.

The form of the story, as I said, is a letter, and in that sense it reminded me of The True History of the Kelly Gang, but instead of an outlaw writing to his daughter on the eve of his death in battle, Marilynne Robinson takes on the voice of John Ames, a reverand writing to his young son on the eve of his death from a heart condition. So at first the stakes seem very low indeed. But this book also reminded me strongly of The Remains of the Day because Ames is, in some ways, an unreliable narrator whose story conceals more than it reveals about the fraught lives of the people of Gilead. Over the course of the book, we glean bits of insight, not only into Ames' life, but also those of his father and grandfather and of his friend Reverand Boughton and his family, particularly his wayward son, Jack. The two families' stories are woven together around themes of faith, honor, and fatherhood. (And if this all sounds like a very male-dominated book, not to worry. Robinson has written a kind of companion novel written from the perspective of Glory, Boughton's daughter, which I'm looking forward to reading.)

Having said that Ames is unrealiable, I need to clarify by adding that he strives very hard to be as reliable as possible. He says over and over that he's trying to be honest, but over and over he finds himself hemmed in by his own stringent morality. He prides himself on never speaking ill of anyone, and so he finds it extremely difficult to recount the story of the various characters' failings - some of them very extreme (I won't give them away, because not knowing what exactly Ames was trying to shield is what kept me going until the end of the book).

Although this reticence can get quite frustrating, it also feels completely organic to the character. I don't know what Robinson's own background is, but she certainly writes a convincing portrait of a mind steeped in religion. Ames laces his prose with Scripture, which he knows off by heart, and the same heritage of ideas and language permeates all the conversations he describes. This is the story of people brought up with a strong sense of faith and charity who nonetheless find themselves confused and troubled in the face of historical and personal circumstance. From Ames' grandfather's questionable actions in the Civil War to Boughton's and Ames' struggles to forgive the impossible Jack, Robinson shows the limits of doctrine and at the same time the boundlessness of faith. Ames finds manifestations of god not only in his struggles with moral questions, but also, more importantly, in everyday moments of beauty and joy, in his observations of people in his town and his own enjoyment of his wife and son, whom he values above all else.

So although I have no religious feeling or knowledge of Christian belief, I found myself entirely drawn in my Ames' reflections on his religion. This book is a fascinating window into American history, especially around the Civil War, and into a distinctly American code of faith and morality (Ames' life is set against that of his brother, who travels to Germany to read philosophy), and an equally fascinating portrait of a mind and a life woven through with historical, cultural, and social circumstance. I really could be considered a meditation on the meaning of individual existence within that network of history and present. But unlike many meditations on existence, this one left me with a really positive feeling. It's a tough book, but not an entirely sad one.

Now I must run off to class to discuss it.