"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, 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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Brightening things up when the winter blues come along

I was really inspired by a video that Joe Holmes (Plus2Joe on YouTube) posted the other day about SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and the way that blue feelings seem to seep in along with the mists and rains of winter, for no apparent reason. Here in England, it's now getting completely dark by about 4:30pm, and personally I find that the less light I get exposed to, the less I get out of the house in the sun, the less warmth in my bones, the less energy I feel and the easier I get sad (or SAD).

So, as Joe suggested, I thought I'd share some things that help me. This is sort of also a reminder to myself to keep doing these things, because sometimes I think all I really want to do is curl up under my down comforter to keep away the cold and the dark, but actually I end up feeling better if I resist that urge and do something else. Not that curling up and getting cozy isn't a great option on a cold winter night. It's just good to remember that it's one of many great options. And, personally, I find that if I stay in too many days in a row, I get cabin fever. So, here's my solutions to the winter sads. Please share yours in the comments! I'm always looking for more fun things to cheer things up.

1. Staying warm. It's chilly! If my logic holds, then summer warmth is part of what makes summer so nice, so staying warm in winter should help. One of my favorite ways to keep warm is drinking hot spiced beverages, which have the added benefit of being yummy.

2. Going outside. Even though it's cold. Even though it might rain. I have to keep reminding myself of this. Because fresh air really does feel good to breathe.

3. Eating right. I don't know about you, but I feel 100% better all around when I eat fresh, healthy food. And things like whole grains and protein-rich foods give you more energy, which I find is always in shorter supply during the winter. Eating healthy can also go along with cooking for yourself, which is really fun and a great study/work break.

4. Eating delicious. This is not mutually exclusive with number 3, and they're both important. Delicious for me can be anything from a rich homebaked cake to a super juicy pear (they're in season and deeeeliiiciouuuss!). For me, eating something really tasty or giving into a craving for chocolate can turn my day around.

5. Being creative. Working on and completing a creative project is one of the best feelings I know of, so if you're anything like me, then be sure to fill your winter with crafts and projects and artsy stuff. It can be baking bread or sketching or knitting a scarf or participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is this month - I'm not doing it this year, but I'm really hoping to next year; google it if you don't know what it is, cause it's pretty cool). Whatever makes you feel productive and absorbs your attention to clear your brain of whatever's puzzling or worrying you at the moment.

6. Keeping fit. SO important. Not because I think everyone should be atheletic gods and goddesses, but because it makes you feel better and gives you more energy. So far this winter I've been pretty good about doing some regular stretching and keeping supple, but I'm going to work on getting some more aerobic exercise to add some endorphins to the mix.

7. Watching feel-good movies. I especially like re-watching favorite movies and old classics. And I LOVE going the movies - any time of year, really, but winter's just as good a time as any.

8. Reading feel-good books. Right now I'm reading a lot of books for school (like 2 a week), so this doesn't really apply, but I'm sure it does for some of you.

9. Taking a hot shower. Can work wonders. Imagine you're in a spa, even if you're not. It's a nice feeling.

10. Letting your skin breathe. This might sound silly, but in winter, if you live in a cold place, you tend to wear lots of layers of clothes, and your skin might not see the light of day for days. I think it's especially important when it's cold to take care of your skin, give it cream and warm water and let it breathe for a minute after you step out of the shower before you muffle yourself up again.

11. Talking to people. You know that introvert/extrovert thing, when introverts get energy from being alone, and extroverts get energy from being with people? I don't know if it's true, but I find I need a mix of both. Sometimes I just need to get some energy reflected back from other people in order to reboot my own system.

12. Playing with cuddly animals. Sadly, I have no cuddly animals available to me at the moment, but if you do, go play with them! I find that a little encounter with a neighbor's cat on the way to school or a moment petting a dog who runs up to sniff at you before its owner calls it back, can make my day a little brighter.

13. Planning it out. Make a schedule of fun things to do so that you can look forward to them, whether it's deciding in advance what movie to watch when you get home from school/work or making a date with a friend to go out. This also avoids the problem of just keeping on working or wasting all your free time trying to decide what to do for fun.

14. Making yourself pretty. I find I always seem to make more of an effort with my outfits when I'm feeling sick or tired, partly because it makes it less noticeable, but then I also start to notice it less, and I end up feeling better. And then getting home and changing into your cozy pyjamas feels all the more delicious.

15. Listening to happy music. Sometimes when I'm tired I lean toward calm, soothing music, but sometimes the best thing is a really upbeat song that just makes you want to dance. Make that listening to happy music and dancing to it. I most especially recommend "You Make My Dreams" from the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack.

16. Laughing. You wouldn't think I'd forgot to do this, but I mean laughing hard, uncontrollably, whether in a giggling fit with your friends or while watching a funny movie or a stand-up comedy show.

OK that's all I can think of. Is it this cold and dark where you are? And what do you do to cheer yourself up?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rainy day/Literature/Fireworks

Today is finally a legitimately rainy day. No playing around with sunny spells and sudden downpours (because if that's how you defined a rainy day, then every day in England would be a rainy day). Today is the kind of day where you wake up to a steady patter of rain and know that you're just going to stay cozied up inside and drink hot chocolate. Speaking of which....

Ok, back now with hot chocolate in hand. Anyway, the best thing about today was that I had something to do with my time cooped up indoors. My first real piece of work for my courses (aside from reading) has come more than half-way through the semester - a quirk of the English education system has all the work come at the end. And although it has been wonderful and luxurious to spend the last six weeks simply reading novels, it is so good to be getting back to a different, more active kind of work. I think I needed the break of the summer and the first half of the semester to make me realize how much I love sitting down with an analytic project and digging in.

This particular project is a presentation on Lolita for tomorrow's class, in which I'm focusing on Nabokov's representation of America, particularly American femininity, landscape, and storytelling. Lots of fun, right? Well, of course I think it is, for several reasons.

First, I like writing or talking about books in ways that feel new, or at least not mainstream. All I had ever heard about Lolita before reading it was that it was a scandalous novel of pedophilia with a bizarrely-named narrator. Instead, I found it to be a fascinating glimpse of the immigrant's vision of America - a panoramic view of Hollywood, roadside attractions, motels, comic books, suburban lawns, and 1950s slang. But Nabokov also transcends the outsider's vision and digs deep enough to offer an American novel that is richer than most foreigner's and some native's attempts at the same thing.

Second, I love love love the moment when you find a perfect quote to support your argument or discover a sudden resonance between your ideas and another critic's interpretation of the same book. When I initially think up some crazy idea about a novel, I must be filled with some kind of subliminal doubt that can only be erased by finding reflections in the words others have written. And I'm always surprised by the accuracy of those reflections.

Third, I like writing. I like putting my thoughts into words. Especially thoughts about books. This may be a bit obvious, since I'm going to the trouble of getting an advanced degree in literature, but I find that analyzing books (certain books, at least) makes them more interesting and enjoyable.

So yes, I think I can use the word 'fun' in the same sentence as 'Lolita,' as weird as that seems. In fact, this has been a great weekend overall. I spent Friday (which I have had free from classes for so many years that I now count it as part of the weekend) reading the entirety of Lolita, which was difficult but satisfying. Saturday was devoted to trawling through various scholarly articles about the book and gathering my own ideas into a semblance of a thesis statement. Today I put it all together into a presentation. And I interrupted the work last night to go see the Guy Fawkes night fireworks with my housemates, which was wonderful in a roasted-chesnuts-country-fair-bright-lights-pop-music-candy-apples-freezing-toes-warm-fuzzy-feelings kind of way. I wish I had pictures of the fireworks to show you, but it was too dark. Hope you all had nice weekends, too.