Category Archives: books

Behind the Shelfie

‘Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.  It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own.  Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’–the boundary of the unknown.”  But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.’

-recently read inA Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

– – currently in my purse, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado

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KonWhat?

Back from an embarrassingly long hiatus with the news that I finally caught up with the tidying bug that swept the world a few years ago – Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying. Kondo’s method, called the KonMari method, focusses on only keeping items that bring you joy, jettisoning the unessential to create a cleaner, tidier living space.  The method combines techniques most people have heard before – clean as you go, a place for everything and everything in its place, etc., as I’m sure most people know since I’m the last person to read the book.

The book naturally made me start thinking about materialism. Kondo hits the nail on the head when she lists two categories of items that most people have the biggest issue tossing: gifts and those ‘might come in handy’ items.  I had always felt only marginally guilty about throwing away or donating gifts and items that may AT SOME POINT be useful.  My partner, however, feels massively guilty. It was nice to be able to give him Kondo’s main point – that the gifts had been gratefully received and, in doing so, the purpose of the gift had largely been served.

I was raised by a mother who moved frequently as a child, which meant that she regularly threw away the inessential to save space (and money) during a move. She adapted this process with my sister and I – after Christmas we’d sort through toys, books, and other items to determine what had to be thrown away and what could be donated. Similarly, while pulling our spring or fall wardrobe out of their storage bins, we’d take stock of each item. If it was too worn to wear ourselves or donate, it was tossed; if we had never really worn it and wouldn’t, it was donated. A good method of keeping clutter at a minimum, but one that flew out the window once I was on my own.

I moved to London with two suitcases and a yoga mat. But that was four years ago, and a frying pan, stock pot, single plate, bowl, and set of cutlery has expanded to masses of kitchen gear and dishware.  As I combed through what I had always thought of as a reasonably small collection of clothing, I was reasonably surprised at the items I felt free to toss. Books, less so, but still a few titles that I realised we’d never read. We haven’t done papers or personal items yet, but we’re heading there this week. It’s amazing to think that, in four years, I’ve managed to accumulate so many things.  I’ve seen other challenges and tasks geared towards addressing the vast amounts of stuff we gather around us–blog posts about everything you bought that month to hold yourself accountable, throwing one thing away when you buy something new . . . but I never thought I bought that much because I always lived by such a small budget. Shows what I know.

All this being said, I can’t say that I’m a KonMari acolyte.  I’m not a massive fan of this folding thing (is it really so much better/space economising than folding things flat? Is it?) and I don’t think that this will stop the clutter from, someday, mounting up again. Clutter happens, because life happens. I think it’s great to practice mindful consumption and I think we all should do it as best we can.  I think it’s good to take stock of what you have, what you need, what you use, and adjust the contents of your house accordingly, like my Mom taught me.  But it increasingly seems like we, as a society, are holding each other to an impossibly high standard. Don’t just read the KonMari method, LOVE it, live your LIFE by it – be mindful, be present, be everything. Well, I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded by the books I’m trading in to Amazon (£10-worth, woot!). I’m looking forward to the rest of the clean out, but . . . I’m prepared for the next mess.

summer reading list

To most book lovers, it’s an old, well-understood song and dance. When in company with one another, one hears the hum of agreement when mentioning the quiet joy of walking through a bookshop. There’s a collective knowledge of the slow pace, the rocking motion of slowly leaning back and tilting forward to see the entire shelf. A recognition of the spark held by a known author or title, or a captivating new title that makes the person perusing to slide the book from the shelf to leave through the pages. For all the convenience of amazon (if one ignores the taxes issues), a free afternoon calls for a mosey through a good bookshop.

But this past winter I bought and read a book that I noticed on a shelf in my boyfriend’s aunt’s house, Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. I think I’ve mentioned this book before, here, but the essence of the plot is that she goes through her house to read all of the books she owns but has not read. This survey of her books and their location within her home leads to a rumination on the books in her life and the memories they call forward. The book’s premise has inspired me to take stock of the books in my flat for new reading material, temporarily abandoning the bookshop.

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My boyfriend and I moved in together a year ago, which combined our book collections–his collection provides Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. One of my English professors loved Graham Greene. In our modern english literature course we read The End of the Affair, a novel that was difficult for me to process at the time. It was thought-provoking, but I think I wasn’t perhaps ready to read the book at that stage of my life. The writing was excellent, however, so I’m very much looking forward to reading The Quiet American.

I’ve been a bit absent from fiction for a while. There hasn’t been much time to read. But that hasn’t stopped me from taking a spin through a bookshop when I’ve had a few minutes to spare. There used to be a chain bookshop on the way from the library to my boyfriend’s office. If I seemed a bit early to meet him after work, I’d stop in to visit my friends. Which, of course, led to purchasing new potential friends: the often recommended Poisonwood Bible and Oryx and Crake and the potentially baffling Proust and Pessoa. I’ve enough books to get me through the summer at the very least, so this is what I’ll do. Except when Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life comes out, because a) I’ve already pre-ordered it and b) her books (both fiction and academic) are AMAZING and I’m not going to miss anything for a single second.

Disappearing Ink

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I’ve had some time on my hands recently and when that happens I usually get some bright idea that I’ll pick up a new hobby. This month, that hobby is calligraphy. It helps that I’ve an event coming up that may require some calligraphy, but you know . . .calligraphy.

I took a summer camp class on calligraphy when I was probably a pre-teen. I found the class frustrating because my handwriting, even after weeks, looked nowhere near the instructor’s beautiful penmanship. I chalked it up to the fact that my motor skills probably hadn’t fully checked in yet.

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 Ladyfingers Letterpress

Beautiful calligraphy, or just beautiful penmanship, makes a document look elegant. Beautiful penmanship shows style, it conveys a sense of competence. It requires skill, focus, and delicacy. In the age of computers, it also illustrates time and consideration above and beyond the amount we normally give. I still write handwritten thank you notes and cards for special occasions. My mother taught me that a handwritten note signifies extra care–but in an increasingly digital world, this mentality seems to be diminishing. Steve Carrell noted that ‘sending a handwritten letter is becoming such an anomaly. It’s disappearing. My mom is the only one who still writes me letters. And there’s something visceral about opening a letter – I see her on the page. I see her in her handwriting.’ While it’s true that computers allow us to build entire social media profiles that display ‘who we are’ as people, our handwriting is a direct sensory link between us and the words and ideas we put on the page. Beyond our handwriting, only our voices can do this.

But good penmanship, truly good penmanship or calligraphy, also requires a specific set of tools; the right pens, the right inks, and the right type of person. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the right type of person.

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My letters, as seen above, look neither elegant nor skilled. While there was a considerable amount of due diligence happening while I attempted to form these letters . . . it doesn’t exactly look like that. But my mother has always said that I never have the patience to practice developing skills. Apparently I (and my sister, to be fair, so I think it’s genetic) expect to amazing at craft-related skills right out the gate. But life doesn’t happen this way (unfortunately), so I need to practice. I think I have the wrong pen nibs.

 

Discipline, routine

As someone with very little routine at the moment, I found Maria Popova’s article on Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith compelling. Intended to discuss creativity and lifestyle of an artist, I believe that the points made within the book (via the article) could be easily adapted to most lives.

Much of what I read on the internet emphasizes mindfulness, the need to pause and actively think about the progression of the day. But these posts and articles often present ‘mindfulness’ in a somewhat new age-y manner, like we need to pause and reflect for our own health and well-being. As a rather ambitious and driven person, I usually try to pick-up and leave behind my mindfulness on the yoga mat.

Smith and Popova highlight discipline–not solely the need to show up and work hard, but the manner in which we do so. They describe discipline as ‘the unflinching commitment to ourselves, to our own sense of merit and morality, to our own ideals and integrity.’ The article argues that our daily routine directly impacts what we bring forth to the world–that our smaller actions impact our presence in the larger scheme of things.

While this seems like a rather daunting concept on the surface, in reality it allows you to break ‘mindfulness’ into smaller, more practical units of time. And that’s something I can get behind.

 

Tuesdays at Tea Time

The benefits of going on a vacation are endless, and it’s pointless to list them all here. However, the first and foremost among them is this: free reading time. Books for pleasure are increasingly getting put back on the shelf (pun intended) the older I get. Reading time seems to be eaten up by other things that just seem more pressing . . . I want to read my book but I have all these other books for school . . . I want to read my book but I have to go run errands . . . I want to read my book but I should tidy my flat. All of these are important and necessary things to do INSTEAD of reading for pleasure, it’s true. And that’s probably why I feel so bitter when I end up wasting my day on tumblr.

Anyway, so when a vacation/holiday comes around it’s amazing to just read and read and read (and watch american tv) and read. During my two weeks in America I managed to read 3 books: two novels and a novella.

After Nora Ephron died this year, I (and the rest of the world) really wanted to make an effort to read her prose. I don’t actually know anyone who doesn’t enjoy the films she’s written and produced, so to say I am a fan is pointless. I’m convinced that it is only the sheer strength of the combined charisma of Nora Ephron and Amy Adams that made Julie Powell bearable in Julie and Julia.

I decided to read Heartburn, the novella that Ephron herself repeatedly admitted was a thinly disguised re-telling of the end of her own second marriage. As I anticipated, reading Nora Ephron is like sitting down with your best friend somewhere and listening. It’s wry, incredibly self-deprecating, and a whole bundle of emotions. You laugh with her, you cry with her, you cheer with her, and you purse your lips with a slight shake of your head saying “WHY are you DOING this to yourself?!” But, without revealing the end, it all wraps itself up on a triumphant note and a future in a quandary.

I managed to read and finish Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies a few weeks before it won the Man Booker Award. Mantel has previously won the Man Booker for Wolf Hall, to which Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel. As a devoted champion of Anne Boleyn since even before I started seriously considering history as a career, I’ve never been Thomas Cromwell’s biggest fan. I am, however, a huge fan of extraordinarily well-researched historical fiction. It feels fantastic when I can read a novel set in my major research period and not get pulled out of the story by a spike of disappointment/rage that is usually encompassed by “that could NEVER have happened. ugh.”

Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell in Wolf Hall made me much more inclined to like him, and Mantel’s characterization of Anne Boleyn made me much more inclined to trust her as an author. So many fiction writers who deal with the Tudor era depict Anne Boleyn as a two-dimensional man-stealing shrew, and beyond this being historically inaccurate it’s also just lazy writing. Mantel’s Boleyn is multi-faceted and complicated; Mantel has encapsulated the fiesty, intelligent, contrary, and certainly a little vicious personality that makes a woman incredibly attractive when young and beautiful and unattainable, but slightly less so when she’s older and more haggard and naggy and not producing male heirs. While Wolf Hall tackled the former Anne, Bring Up the Bodies depicts the downward spiral of the latter.

As a reader, I preferred Wolf Hall. I felt like Cromwell’s voice and his motives were more clear and the progression of the story was more engaging. As a historian, I respect Bring Up the Bodies enormously. Scholars have essentially pieced together how Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII got together. It’s really not that complicated and the sources have pretty much stitched together to form a narrative. Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace, however, is much less transparent. We know the bare bones of what happened: who was arrested, who died. We know some gossip and there are certainly legends. We know enough to make the story but not enough to know what happened. So many people and alliances got entangled in the whole thing, and everyone tried to conceal or alter their parts in the story. Eveyone had an angle. Hilary Mantel’s account is believable, but for an interesting reason that I won’t spoil here.

It certainly raises a salient question about how much the truth factors into government/policy/justice. But that’s a debate for a different forum.

I also read another big release, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I had stayed away from the hype around it, so I didn’t really know anything about the plot or that a major character’s name is Barry (“it rhymes with Harry! OMG, can she not come up with anything else?” . . . people, sometimes, amiright?) or that it had the word “vagina” in it.

That being said, I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. I loved that her writing voice is still essentially the same; her imagery is incredible and that sly twisting humor still pokes away at you. It was certainly interesting to read a book about the dark underbelly of an idyllic English village, as an outsider with an up-close and personal view of English culture. I’m not sure all of the social issues/commentary will translate for international readers. As I said, I’m still chewing on it but I do highly recommend it to others.

Next on my list is Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book and Juliet Barker’s biography The Brontes. I should probably do some preparatory PhD reading, but . . . not just yet.

Tuesdays at tea time

The hardest part about doing the master’s thesis was trying to work up the energy to read something new at the end of the day. For about three weeks I had no internet in my new flat, so there was precious little to do but I still managed to turn to my meagre DVD collection before picking up my current book. But here’s what I did read, fiction-wise.

This summer I’ve read the latest in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night. Set partially in late 16th century London, I galloped through the book and periodically called my mother to squeal over minute historical details that I knew (I knew) because of my graduate program. Makes all my student loans feel worth-while. Last Tuesday Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross held a talk and book-signing with Harkness, who is also a professor of history. Not only was she absolutely delightful to listen to, but when I approached her with my books (first in the queue, knees knocking together) and told her that I just finished my master’s thesis that very day, not ONLY did she write a nice inscription for me but when she heard my thesis topic she said it sounded excellent. I floated on clouds all the way to London Bridge train station (an hour’s walk from Charing Cross, by the by).

I also read Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817. Though technically non-fiction, it was absolutely fascinating. Rife with details (bless those literary figures for writing down their every thought), the book paints a fantastic picture of B.R. Haydon’s circle of friends, which included including John Keats and William Wordsworth among many others.

I’m currently two-thirds of the way through Bleak House, and I must admit it’s rather bleak. The plot is interesting, of course, and the writing and the character descriptions are as fantastic as a reader expects Dickens’ to be. But when you want the female protagonist to start cracking skulls and stop being so damn insipid it’s difficult to find the will to continue with it. I’m hoping to finish it quickly so I can move on.

For the plane ride, I’ve bought Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Man Booker Award-winning Wolf Hall. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Bring Up the Bodies has just been announced as part of the Short List for the next Man Booker award. I adored the first book, so hopefully the second will be just as good.