"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"

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost

Drumroll please.....it's my 100th post on this blog! And in honor of that, I'm going to do something totally ordinary and write you a review of what I've been reading. Sorry, I really couldn't think of anything exciting this early in the morning. However, this is a really good book, so I guess that makes up for it.

Let me qualify: this is a great book for people who are both patient and curious. The former because it's 700 pages long and written in a the long-winded style of the 17th century. The latter because it's a murder mystery that not only reveals who did it, but also an amazing wealth of information about life and thought in Oxford in the 1660s.

This is a truly dynamic setting, because the place was crawling with now-famous scientists and philosophers - although, as Iain Pears shows brilliantly, the two were one-and-the-same back then. The characters who are interested in experimenting in science are also wedded to religious doctrine and manage to mix the two in really astounding ways. Instead of just telling us what people ate or how they dressed, Pears reveals how they thought, and how different their assumptions were to ours. There is one scene in particular of a chemistry experiment which shows how rudimentary the scientific method was and how exciting it was for people steeped in both Christian and ancient Greek dogma to discover these new ways of thinking.

The theme of scientific inquiry and truth (which fits so nicely into a mystery novel) intersects with a political strain. The book is set just a few years after the end of the Cromwellian era in England, a time when religious and political tensions were running very very high. Pears gives us four different first-person narrators, whose perspectives highlight different aspects of the era: Marco da Cola, a gentleman physician from Italy, Jack Prescott, a young man trying to prove his father was not a traitor to the newly restored king, Dr. Wallis, a very paranoid cryptographer who's enmeshed in both the old and the new regime, and Anthony Wood, an antiquary and historian who claims to be impartial in his writing of the events of the books.

As it turns out, none of them are totally impartial, and they all have different reasons for writing their versions of the murder and its solution. As I said, it takes a lot of patience to get through the same narrative four times and have the answer to the who-done-it question delayed for about 600 pages. But it's really such a rewarding read, because the four stories turn out to be very different versions, and Pears does a masterful job layering perspectives and timing revelations so that you are always on the brink of finding out another crucial bit of information.

The writing is old-fashioned, of course because it's written in first-person, but once you let yourself sink into it, it's very easy to read. I recommend this for a long week in winter with many cups of tea. Reading it in one weekend was like running a long-distance race (luckily one I've been training for the last six months), but I still appreciated this book immensely for what it taught me about the era, for giving me another amazing example of historical fiction, and for telling a good story that left me really satisfied.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Books for the semester

I'm about half-way through the semester now, and I finally have all the books I need for my spring classes. So I thought I'd do another little book photoshoot, because I love my books.

Well, not all of these books. I've already explained why Sacred Hearts disappointed me, and Sharpe's Tiger was so lame that I'm not even going to review it. Everything else has been great so far, though. I'm currently 200 pages into the 700-page An Instance of the Fingerpost....many, many pages, and, so far, an awful lot of history and plot to keep track of (it's a historical murder mystery), but it promises to get better and better. While you're waiting for my review of it, here are some pretty book covers.

Monday, February 18, 2013

In which cold and hot are opposites and going to the movies solves everything

Since I've been in England, I think about the weather a lot, check the forecast a lot, complain, predict, stare out the window, calculate the relative merits of different keep-warm outfits. And today I was thinking about how differently people respond to different climates. It's not just that the weather changes your mood or your habits. It also changes your attitude toward weather itself - or at least this seems to be true for me.

For the last four years, I lived in a very hot place, basically the desert. Now I live in a very cold place. Both kinds of climate can be really unpleasant of course, but in really different ways. There's something about cold weather that makes people complain about it. Even when I'm happy that it's raining or snowing, I kind of feel the need to gripe. I also fill a lot of conversations with speculations about the chance of precipitation tomorrow, the next day, over the weekend, next week....The international student handbooks weren't kidding when they said that the English love to talk about the weather.

What's ironic is that no matter how much you check the forecast or exchange predictions, it will always surprise you. The forecast changes daily. A rainy day will clear up unexpectedly, leaving you looking silly in your rain boots. And a dry day turns out to have such a thick mist that it's practically raining.

And then there's the actual cold. I really don't mind rain, but I do mind the freezing cold air that blows that rain into my face and makes my lips numb on the walk to school. Who decided it would be a good idea to settle on this island in the first place? Couldn't we just leave it to some other animals who are better adapted to the cold? And why do so many English people insist on wearing the lightest of jackets, or even no jacket at all, when it's below freezing? And then complain about how cold it is!

So that's the dynamic around cold, wet, grey weather - you talk about it endlessly, you try to predict it, you gripe and gripe, but in the end it eludes your predictions and you never do anything to make it better, never try to find the silver linings, like the fresh smell of rain or the fact that your country doesn't have a drought problem, or the fun of cozying up when it's snowing outside and drinking hot chocolate.

Hot weather is a totally different thing. I just don't remember talking about the heat so much when I was living in southern California. I suffered in it, definitely. There were days when wearing any clothes at all seemed unbearable, when working was out of the question. But when the sun is beating down, people seem to expect to feel happy, to revel in the heat - the opposite of the assumption that cold weather is always miserable and we must complain about it. Hot weather isn't an excuse to complain, it's an excuse to put on your bikini and sun bathe or buy yourself a refreshing drink.

I think part of this is that, when it is truly and really hot, silence and stillness are your best friends. Heat melts your energy away, and no one wants to waste the precious energy they have left by talking about how low-energy they are. Better to summon up some last strength and drift through the heat waves toward an air-conditioned place or a glass of cold water.

There is one constant in both extremes of climates. Going to the movies is always good. In cold places, it's a warm place to curl up for a few hours. In hot places, it's a haven of cool darkness. So yesterday I went to see a remastered print of Roman Holiday and accompanied Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck to beautiful, summery Rome, where people roll up their sleeves and eat gelato. That's the other thing about weather - it always makes you wish for its opposite - and I was really jealous of Audrey and Gregory as I stood waiting for the bus after the movie, freezing my face off.

But jealousy aside, it was a great way to spend a Sunday evening. It's such an adorable movie, with jokes that don't get old and great side characters - little sketches perfectly realized in a few moments as the journalist and the princess zoom through Rome on their Vespa. No matter what you're needing an escape from - the heat or the cold or school work or work work - it's great to watch Audrey Hepburn's princess escape her duties and responsibilities and jaunt around a beautiful city, basking in the heat, beautifully captured in the cool tones of classic black-and-white film.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Sacred Hearts

This is another book from my historical novel syllabus, and the first I've been disappointed in. The story is set entirely in a Benedictine convent in 16th century Italy, and the main narrator is the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, but her voice is interspersed with the voice of Serafina, the newest arrival at the convent, who has been put there against her will. According to the author's note, this was a common practice at the time - women from various social strata and with different problematic backgrounds were forced into convent life. That's one of the novels historical revelations. The other is that these convents were not the stark, spartan cells one might imagine, but could be places for women to practice art - singing or composing in particular, for religious music - or, as in Zuana's case, to pursue the study of medicine.

Dunant sets her story at a time when that way of life - the relative freedom allowed to nuns within convent walls - is in danger of being destroyed by fiercer regulations and more of an emphasis on religious devotion. Moments of transition in history are always interesting, but Dunant actually places much more weight on the plot surrounding Serafina's resistance to convent life and Zuana's spritual/moral doubts about how to help Serafina.

It wasn't enough of a story to maintain my interest through three or four hundred pages, especially because Dunant never allows us to leave the convent or the women's minds. This really gives the novel a sense of claustrophobia and repression, because the nuns are cut off from the outside world and from their own impulses and desires and thoughts. They can never talk honestly to each other because there are so many rules about which thoughts are pious and which require penance. And even Serafina, whose rebelliousness at first brings some variety and relief, eventually starts to succumb to the influence of some of the most violently pious nuns.

This device - the closed world, the women sharing this intense relationship with each other and with their god - could have made a really interesting book, but Dunant doesn't take it far enough. She never really gets into her characters' minds enough to convince you of what it would really be like to live in a convent, or even in an era when religion was such an important part of life, a given, whether you were in a convent or not. Instead of real psychological study, we get a lot of repetitive reflections on god, regularly interrupted with sensational plot twists. These really undercut the effect of the claustrophobia, because while we're supposed to be sympathizing with the women's self-denial and suffering, Dunant gives us everything we want - a love story, an escape attempt, tense politics, a mystical nun, even a kind of chase scene through the convent at night.

It's funny, I thought I was going to really enjoy this as an easy read after so many bizarre, experimental novels, but I got really frustrated because when I indulge in an easy read, I want it to be a really good easy read. If for some reason, you can't get enough of renaissance novels or love reading about religious life, I guess you might enjoy this (quite a few people in my class loved it). Otherwise, I advise you choose a different book.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

spring rhythms

I know, it's not really spring yet. I would like it to be spring very much, but...it's not. However, I'm starting to believe better seasons are on the way.

The sun came out today for the first time in ages. This was a good thing. On my way to class this morning through the park, I saw some wildflowers peeping out of the (very soggy) ground. And speaking of sogginess, rain seems to have replaced snow here, and I do love rainy days sometimes. They make way for more wildflowers.

I decided to spend today cleaning, baking, reading, and doing a little yoga. I feel like spring is a time for being restorative, and I have a little extra time this week. The semester has hit the mid-way plateau - we've already struggled up the learning curve of new schedules, new professors, new topics and concepts, but we've yet to start the accelerating slide toward final papers and deadlines. Right now, I'm just moseying along for a while.

And sometimes it's good to give yourself some space, clean up the papers on your desk, glance a few weeks ahead on the calendar, catch up on your sleep, and introduce something new into your routine - a new route to school, a book that's not on a course list, a new recipe, some music you haven't listened to in a while. Over the last few weeks, I've made some changes in my daily schedule, too. For a few days, I tried writing for an hour first thing in the morning. Yesterday and today, I'm not checking the blogs I usually look at in the mornings so I can spend the time reading a novel instead.

It's funny how we all make resolutions to change our lives at New Years - I never really do it because at that time of year, I'm still feeling cozy and wintry and I'm much more ready to curl up right where I am and hibernate than I am to get out and try something new or disrupt my rhythms at all. Spring, though, is a whole other feeling. I don't necessarily feel the need to make an absolute shift, or even to make an official promise, like giving up chocolate for Lent. It's just good sometimes to shake yourself out of habit and see what it feels like to do something another way.

I might be noticing all this more because this is my first full year in a place where it actually gets cold and stays cold through February. I'm appreciating minute rises in temperature and flashes of blue sky SO much more than I would normally. Little changes can make a big difference.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

January Things

Food: Vegan Baking

I'm not vegan, or even vegetarian, but I am from California, and I know how amazing vegan food can be, especially vegan cookies. So, when I find myself without an egg or the desire to walk through the cold to buy one at the corner store, I don't give up on satisfying my craving for some baked goods. This has happened to me twice over the last month, resulting in one less successful and one more successful foray into vegan baking.

My first try was to make oatmeal cookies using olive oil. I think some kind of vegetable oil would have been a better choice, because they were very dense and very olive-oil-flavored - not terrible, but odd. They were pretty good with some dates on the side and a mug of chai tea, but I wouldn't make them again, nor did I share them with anyone. Usually I leave out a few cookies for my housemates when I bake, but after tasting these, I quickly tucked them all away in my cupboard so that no one would lose confidence in my baking skills.

However, this weekend, I tried this recipe for vegan muffins, which uses avocado and peanut butter to give moisture and bind the batter together. The recipe also calls for cocoa powder and chocolate chips, but I didn't have any so I made it sans. I was really doubtful when I took a look at the greenish-brown mixture of mashed avocadoes, peanut butter, and water with vinegar (to keep the avocados from turning brown, I think), but when I mixed that with flour, etc., it got a lot more appetizing. The batter rose absolutely beautifully in the oven and came out of the muffin tins like a dream.

This time, I did leave out some samples on a plate for my housemates, and today they've all reported back that they taste weird but delicious. I guess that's a compliment? I'm pretty happy with them. When they came out of the oven, they were super gooey inside, and I almost put them back in to bake more, but today they're perfectly moist, and the avocado kind of makes it taste fresh and summery.

Entertainment: MUBI

Such a great discovery. I got a special deal on my first few months membership through another membership I have (one of those complicated promotional chains of events), and I really love it. Mubi is a curated video streaming site, like Netflix, but instead of having all the movies up on the site at once, they post one movie day and leave it up for 30 days, so there's only ever 30 movies to choose from at a time. This is a godsend for someone who hates making decisions. The best part is that the movies they pick are very diverse, from chick flicks to political documentaries, and each one comes with a little blurb about why they chose it. I definitely recommend it.
N.B. I don't know if you can watch the movies from outside the U.K., or if it's universal. You just have to try it out I guess.

Fashion: Two words: casual and warm

I do love getting dressed up, but something about the quiet rhythms of student life and the cold have made me slip into a routine of casual clothing. Last night I actually wore a fleece instead of a sweater to go over to a friend's house (shocking, I know). I've also been having a lot of lazy study days at home, which have made me get creative with comfortable clothes that aren't pajamas. However, I still dream about the summer clothes hanging in my closet, waiting to be taken out again.

In other fashion news, I've started my second knitting project - a hat. We'll see how it goes!

Did you make any discoveries last month? Eat anything good? See any great movies? Let me know your recommendations in the comments please!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: Shame

Not to be confused with the movie. This is not a book starring Michael Fassbender. Probably the only thing it shares with that movie is that it makes its audience uncomfortable, in this case, by setting up heros, storylines, and an identity as a historical novel, and then tearing each of them, carefully, lovingly, apart, gutting them, and hanging them out to dry like carcasses (the simile is particularly apt for the book, as it's full of corpses and grossness). I don't recommend this book for the lover of the book equivalent of Jane Austen adaptations. Or maybe I do, because it attacks the idea at the heart of classic historical fictions - the assumptions that history can be told as a straightforward narrative and consumed for idle pleasure and escape.

The book is set in the aftermath of Pakistan's separation from India and follows the intertwined fates of three families - the Shakils, the Hyders, and the Harappas - who intermarry, feud, succeed each other as leaders of the new country, and eventually all die, more or less gruesomely. Oops, sorry, spoiler. Except it isn't really a spoiler. First of all, Rushdie has a frustrating/tantalizing habit of telling you what's going to happen before he gets there in his story. He'll hint at someone's demise or future, then loop back to continue the novel chronologically, leaving you simultaneously annoyed that he gave away the future, and impatient to get through the present. But wait, didn't I say it was a historical novel? So the future of the novel is our past, and we know that all these characters are not only fictional, but also already dead in the parallel chronology of historical fiction.

Second of all, Rushdie makes the idea of spoilers a moot point by systematically disengaging us from sympathy with any of his characters. Even the man he labels as his 'hero,' Omar Khayyam Shakil, is painted as terribly unappetizing, and Rushdie even devotes a couple of pages in the middle of the book to how disappointed he is in his hero, how morally repugnant Shakil has become, what a lousy hero he has turned out to be.

Finally, Rushdie sets up, rather brilliantly, a very particular atmosphere that makes each character's fate seem inevitable. As the story progresses, each piece seems to fall into place as thought we knew it would belong there all along. This is partly because of the way Rushdie constantly hints at the future, but also because of his use of magical realism. There's a really strong sense of Fate with a capital F, some ulterior force (History with a capital H?) drawing all the characters along their tangled paths toward the ultimate roles they will play in each others' lives and in the history of their country.

So, without a linear chronology, an emotional through line drawn by a certain character, or the rational worldview of cause-and-effect that one might expect...well, spoilers just don't seem that relevant.

This is not a fun book to read, but it is fascinating. Rushdie has a great command of storytelling techniques, even though he breaks a lot of the rules, and I found myself almost morbidly riveted to the book, disgusted by intrigued. And the book certainly sparks interesting questions about the forms historical fiction can take, and the purposes of writing about history. Rushdie's authorial voice is very strong, and he comes in as himself every so often to talk about the events (stories of Pakistani immigrants in London, for example) that inspired the book. He manages to seem incredibly honest and transparent about his process and goals, and at the same time to slip you into such an intricately woven pattern of different realities and different voices (he's especially good with character's voices and the use of dialect) that you barely know where you are. And that's the point of the book, I think - or one point - that history is deceptive, that we can't trust it, but that it is seductive and compelling all the same. He advertises the book as a fairy tale but winds up saying a lot about both the nature of storytelling and about the reality he's trying to tell.