Thursday, 21 August 2014

Poetry for Letting Go: In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver for letting go

Lately I've been reflecting on good poems to learn by heart, and "In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver has caught my attention. I think this piece is applicable to both life's challenges and quieter plateaus, so I'd say it fits my unwritten requirements for memorised verse.

I know that the following lines will help me with grief and loss when it comes, and help me get back to what's really important when things are hectic:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

There's something I find calming and quite freeing about reading this over. As if the pressure is taken off for a moment. Mary Oliver neatly summarises something I often forget - that letting go is always possible in some sense. It also parallels the simple wisdom in I Am Pilgrim that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go".

Whatever it is we're letting go of, and however we're going to go about doing it, I think Mary Oliver can be a great mentor for the process.

You can read the full poem of "In Blackwater Woods" here, or you can find it in the American Primitive anthology. You can also read my article on waking up early with the help of Mary Oliver.

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Saturday, 16 August 2014

On Visiting Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's Home, to Better Enjoy His Poetry

I recently spent three days in the English Lake District, which could only mean one thing: a mandatory visit to Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's home between 1799 - 1808. Located in Grasmere, a short but idyllic bus journey from Windermere, fans of Romanticism - or any other reader or visitor - can tour the 400-year-old cottage and garden where Wordsworth wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language.

Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home
The view of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home, from the top of the garden.

This is where Wordworth spent over eight years of "plain living, but high thinking", writing much of the poetry for which he is best remembered today. This includes his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", "Ode to Duty", "My Heart Leaps Up", "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", and parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude. Dove Cottage is also where Dorothy Wordworth, William's sister, wrote her famous Grasmere Journals, now on display in the adjacent museum.

On my visit to Dove Cottage I had a tour of the house, as a building of stone floors, dark panelled rooms, small windows and fireplaces throughout. You can see the seat where Wordsworth penned his most famous poems, and sit in the garden, their place of rest, mindfulness and inspiration. It was, wrote Wordsworth, ‘the work of our own hands’. Here the family planted flowers and vegetables, watched birds and butterflies and, above all, read and wrote poetry.

Wordsworth's garden of Dove Cottage

By spending time in the near-sublime surroundings of the Lake District, alongside Wordsworth's home and garden, it's easy to get a sense of where the poet found his inspiration and motivation to write. You can also form an idea why other Romantic poets - including Coleridge, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb - were so influenced by the area. I know I'd like to spend more time here writing and reading.

During my visit there was also a temporary exhibition on "Walking Poets", comparing Wordworth's poetry to the haikus of Bashō, which contained some really beautiful art interweaving the words of both poets. Would I have made this connection without visiting Dove Cottage? I doubt it, so the Wordsworth Trust certainly deserve a pat on the back.

Dove Cottage in the Lake District
The front of Dove Cottage, located in Grasmere.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

- "My Heart Leaps Up" - William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage poetry in the garden
"The peas are beaten down. The scarlet beans want sticking. The garden is overrun with weeds." Dorothy Wordsworth 1800.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

-From "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud"

Dorothy Wordsworth 'Timon of Athens' quote
"I read Timon of Athens. Dried linen. Molly weeded the turnips. John stuck the peas." Dorothy Wordsworth, 1800.

Have you visited the home of any other famous writers or artists? If so, did you also get a sense of how they found their inspiration in their home and surroundings?

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Thursday, 14 August 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes: One of The Best Thrillers Ever Written?

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes reviewAs I was approaching London Charing Cross on the train last month, I saw a nearby passenger completely engrossed in a book. He got off the train with the pages still open and sat down on a bench just opposite the train doors to finish his page. Later that same day, I heard the same book - I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes - recommended by one friend to another in Waterstones.

When you keep hearing a book be praised by complete strangers, I think you have to readjust your reading list accordingly.

I Am Pilgrim is a superb book, and I think the Guardian have it right when they say that it is "the only thriller you need to read this year".

It's a debut, surprisingly, written by an author born in my home county in the South East of England, Sussex. Terry Hayes's credentials do much to explain his achievement with I Am Pilgrim, however: he write the screenplay for Road Warrior/Mad Max 2 alongside a large number of other films and TV series.

What goes on in I Am Pilgrim

This novel is the perfect fit for cinema. It tells the story of Pilgrim, a codename for a man who doesn't exist. He's the adopted son of a wealthy American family, once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence, and wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation before retiring from the 'secret world'.

However, when somebody uses his book to commit the perfect crime, Pilgrim is pulled back to his anonymous career and all the danger it entails. Tracked down by NYPD detective Ben Bradley, Pilgrim is confronted with a textbook murder in a rundown New York hotel which combines the most challenging aspects of all the crimes he has ever been confronted with.

The plot develops, and Pilgrim is left to solve a deeper crime of international importance. Caught between the mysteries of an American hotel room murder, a suspicious suicide on the Turkish coast, and the journey of an extremist from a public beheading in Saudi Arabia to creating a deadly virus, this is no simple thriller. The separate plots swell and entwine, and we're left to make our own calculations while following the impressive deductions of Pilgrim.

I had got up in the morning and by the time I was ready for bed it was a different planet—the world doesn't change in front of your eyes; it changes behind your back.

- Pilgrim on 9/11, a sentiment so many of us can relate to

Read it for the main character (especially if you like Jason Bourne)

If you pick up I Am Pilgrim for one reason, do it for the main character. Pilgrim - otherwise known as Scott Murdoch, Jude Garrett and Peter Campbell (try not to think of Mad Men...) - may be anonymous to the world, but he isn't to the reader. We're fully exposed to his brilliant intelligence, including a psychology degree from Harvard and the rare ability to get to the raw truth of a crime.

However, we're also privy to his very human weaknesses. Pilgrim is left with much unsaid after his adopted father passes away, and many a reader can relate to his feelings of regret which make closure seem impossible. Also, we're all too aware of the character's desire for love and normality in a lifestyle which makes both impossible.

Similar books and movies to I Am Pilgrim certainly include the Jason Bourne series, especially when it comes to the outstanding yet vulnerable male protagonist. My favourite elements of the book include Pilgrim's search for normality in Paris, his writing as a way to find closure, and the comfort he finds in both written and spoken word.

The wisdom from a Buddhist monk that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go" unexpectedly affects the decisions of both Pilgrim and those he passes the phrase onto. Similarly, a reference to the Gospel of St Mark, chapter sixteen, verse six, provides strength when it is most needed. Pilgrim writes, "even if you are not a believer, the words are still very beautiful", and I agree wholeheartedly with this as an agnostic myself.

"He is risen" can tell us much about human strength, and I'm so glad Terry Hayes realised how appropriate it was to his novel.

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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

How Much Do You Really Remember About The Books You've Read?

I'll admit that when it comes to my reading, occasionally I focus on quantity rather than quality. In 2012 I read 93 books, which was, in hindsight, far too many. What was the name of the protagonist in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore? I haven't a clue.

It was by reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a superb book on memory, that I started properly thinking about this. How many books do I know really well?

I think a lot of us readers can relate to Foer when he writes:

One Hundred Years of Solitude: I remember magical realism and that I enjoyed it. But that's about it. I don't even reacall when I read it. About Wuthering Heights I remember exactly two things: that I read it in a high school English class and that there was a character named Heathcliff. I couldn't say whether I liked the book or not.

Joshua Foer on reading and forgetting

To counter the mindless binging of books, I think we need to not "read and read and read", but simply read. It's something I've become a lot better at remembering, but I know my manic reading tendencies will return (and probably soon).

Last year I ticked off a modest 59 books, and this year I've so far managed a meagre 34. I'm happy with that. I'd like to say that I've really mulled over The Secret History by Donna Tartt in all its intellectual, vicious glory, and enjoyed every mindful minute of Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm. And I definitely remember that the protagonist of The Goldfinch was called Theo, and that there were two other wonderful characters called Hobie and Pippa.

By not pushing ourselves to read great lists of Booker Prize winners in a single summer, we can perhaps read more into our books.

For me, I know that writing about my favourite books is a great help. It's also the perfect excuse (or incentive) to research a great book in more detail, and I think Michel de Montaigne would agree with me. As he writes in Of Books, one of his great essays,

To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I had read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those that I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgement I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it.

How do you try to remember the books you read? Do you annotate them and use lots of post-its (as I do), or do you keep a reading journal? Do you read archeologically around an author or topic? Or do you set aside time to reread your favourite novels?

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Friday, 1 August 2014

What Leo Tolstoy Can Teach Us About Overcoming Anxiety

Tolstoy at the time of writing War and
, 1868. Image source.
While on a trip to the Penza region in 1869 to look at some land he was interested in buying, Tolstoy stopped overnight at a hotel in the Russian town of Arzamas. Despite feeling 'perfectly well' and tired after travelling, at two o'clock in the morning Tolstoy was gripped by an intense fear of dying and suffered a full-blown panic attack.

Tolstoy's experience of anxiety

Fellow anxiety sufferers will be able to relate to Tolstoy's description of "despair, fear and terror, the like of which [you have] never experienced before". Tolstoy wrote to his wife about this "agonising feeling", and rightly concluded: "may God preserve anyone else from experiencing it".

This experience would shake his world and his writing, and Tolstoy would set about asking himself what art truly is. From this moment, we can wave goodbye to the playfulness of Natasha Rostov and the sublimity of that "infinite sky" above Andrey on the battlefield; two of my favourite passages in War and Peace.

However, I think that these two instances precisely encompass how we can escape anxiety and access a calmer state of mind.

By turning our attention to the world around us, we can often find meaning and bliss in the most chaotic and anxious of circumstances.

Overcoming anxiety with mindfulness

It seems that Tolstoy followed his own wisdom too. In Rosamund Barlett's brilliant biography of the author, she describes how while travelling through the dense forests of the Penza region, Tolstoy would enjoy looking up to the very tops of the tall pine trees above him. 

When considering Tolstoy looking up to the sky, contemplating something greater than himself, it's hard not to think back to Prince Andrei wounded on the battlefield:

Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing – that’s all there is. But there isn’t even that. There’s nothing but stillness and peace.
When did you last look up at the sky? Let's follow Tolstoy's advice and try to be more mindful. Image source.

There's also the moment when Pierre, imprisoned for alleged arson, feels intense awe at a glorious sunset, despite his cruel captivity (we can compare this to Viktor Frankl's experience in Auschwitz). Finally, when looking up at the comet of 1812, Pierre is overwhelmed by his own tiny place on earth:

Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth...

For Tolstoy and many of his characters - especially those in War and Peace - overcoming an anxious moment may simply require looking up and getting out of our muddled headspace. By becoming mindful, we may well see our surroundings for the marvels they really are, and find some clarity and tranquility after panic and anxiety.

Tolstoy shows us that it's perfectly normal to fail and be anxious. Sometimes it's best, however, to just pause, look around and be mindful.

Bibliography and further reading:

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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

8 Books for Every Bookworm to Have in Their (Miniature) Library

The Creative Habit as a must-have bookMy book collection has invaded every room of my house and continues to grow at an alarming rate. This, I reassure myself, is all part of a bookworm's life.

As a dedicated bookworm, here are 8 of the books from my 'library' which I'm most protective over. They travel with me to and from university, and they're always being picked up and recommended to others. For me, they're the must-own books for every booklover.

As a fellow booklover, which books would you add or remove from the list?

1. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

This is my go-to provider of inspiration and creative wisdom. It's a superb guide to turn to for all sorts of projects, dreams and budding ideas.

2. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy

If you want to learn from Leo Tolstoy, both in following his wisdom and avoiding his (many) mistakes, you simply must have this book. It's full of philosophy and brilliant quotes to help you get through the day and improve your wider life.

3. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

This one is self-explanatory, really. I haven't read all of Shakespeare's work, but I'm certainly planning on it. One of my favourite aspects of doing an English degree is all the exposure to Shakespeare, but I'm looking forward to some exploration of my own too.

A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy as a book we all should own

The Elements of Style, illustrated

4. The Elements of Style by Shrunk and White

This is a bible for writers, and I love the illustrated edition by Penguin.

5. On Writing by Stephen King 

Stephen King must be one of the most respected writers of our time. As readers (and perhaps writers) we're so lucky to have this book of literary guidance from the man himself.

6. The Collected Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

When I'm on a roll with my writing and work, I think about Sherlock Holmes's brilliant deductions. Everything is going smoothly and I'm feeling so productive. The next day, when I'm too burnt out to do anything but watch Prison Break, I think of Holmes's days spent in his armchair (and then remind myself about mania and how I really must prevent it).

For me, there's a lot to learn from Holmes and Watson. And, of course, it's also one of the best collections in fiction.

7. Penguin's Poems for Life by Laura Barber 

I think we should all have a great poetry anthology to console us on dreary days and help us remember the good times. The Penguin Poems for Life is one of my favourites, but I also like The 20th Century in Poetry by Ebury Press.

8. The Penguin New Dictionary of Quotations

I received this anthology of quotations a few years ago for Christmas from my grandmother, and I've mentioned it several times on the blog. There's something magical about having so much wisdom, humour and inspiration in one book.

Do you think I've missed anything? Alternatively, do you share my appreciation for any of these books? Let me know in the comments!

The New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations for all of our libraries

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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Books or Marriage? The Dilemma of Charles Darwin in 1838

 My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—
Darwin in 1854, aged 45, then working towards 
publishing On the Origin of Species

It's July 1838, and Charles Darwin has just returned from a break in Scotland to remedy his overwork. Upon opening one his trademark notebooks, we might think he's about to jot down some thoughts on animal breeding or geological variation. However, he instead divides a piece of paper into two, before writing the following headings: "Marry" and "Not Marry".

Choosing whether or not to marry Emma Wedgwood, granddaughter of potter Josiah Wedgwood, turns out to be a serious business. However, Emma's personal qualities seem to be the least of Darwin's worries (except that she's "better than a dog anyhow"), especially when the prospect of "less money for books" must be considered.

Charles Darwin's list of the pros and cons of marriage


Children—(if it please God)— constant companion, (friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, object to be beloved and played with—better than a dog anyhow—Home, and someone to take care of house—Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things good for one's health. Forced to visit and receive relations but terrible loss of time.

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all.—
No, no won't do.—
Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.—Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, and books and music perhaps—compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt Marlboro' St.

Not Marry

What is the use of working without sympathy from near and dear friends—who are near and dear friends to the old except relatives.
Freedom to go where one liked
—Choice of Society and little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs.—
Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend in every trifle—to have the expense and anxiety of children—perhaps quarrelling.
Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—fatness and idleness —anxiety and responsibility—
less money for books etc—if many children forced to gain one's bread.—(But then it is very bad for one's health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won't like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation with indolent idle fool—

Marry—Marry—Marry Q.E.D.

HMS Beagle, by Conrad Martens

So, books or marriage?

On the advice of his father, Darwin went to visit Emma on 29 July. He did not get around to proposing, but mentioned his ideas on transmutation (against his wise father's advice).

With marriage now on hold, at least for the moment, Darwin immersed himself in reading. This, it turns out, had a favourable outcome, as Darwin soon came across Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population. 

Shortly afterwards came his theory of natural selection. However, in January 1839, so too did marriage. In the end, it seemed that Darwin could enjoy both books and marriage, although in this case maybe books did come first - by a very small margin.

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