Friday, 6 November 2015

Is there anything to gain from reading a novel as sad as A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara?

I mentioned in my last article, 18 recommended books for winter, that I was reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I've now finished it, and–to sum up my immediate thoughts–it was turmoil.

A Little Life is a painfully sad book, and I wonder if many other readers feel prepared for this. A considerable amount of them were probably, like me, drawn to it for its near-win of the Man Booker Prize 2015.

The novel has over 700 pages, and not a small percentage are filled with graphic descriptions of the physical, sexual and mental abuse suffered by the protagonist, Jude St. Francis.

Jude is one of the four bright and ambitious central male characters, who meet at college as randomly assigned roommates and remain crucial parts in each other lives. As they grow up, they become impossibly close, and are defined by their participation in the group as well as disorientated by its lapses.

By Jude's side there's Willem, a waiter with aspirations to become an actor; J.B., who has the confidence to believe he will become a renowned painter; and Malcolm, who struggles to balance his love for architecture with his father's wishes.

Perhaps unexpectedly and even unbelievably, each member of the group is successful professionally. However, while some characters surge forwards in their wider lives, others stagnate.

There's also the persistent burrowing of the past and its traumas into the plot. Despite being such a formidable and talented litigator, Jude is a broken man. With all of the terrible things that were done to him, it seems foolish to expect no repercussions. But despite this, A Little Life continues to hint at the possibility of a happy ending.

There's the home built by Jude and Willem that is surrounded by spring bulbs and wildflowers, as well as the beautiful art produced by the group. There's also the warmth of Jude finding his part in a family.
One weekend shortly after they had moved in, they spent two days making their way through the forests before and behind the house, planting lilies of the valley near the mossy hillocks around the oak and elm trees, and sowing mint seeds throughout. They knew Malcolm didn’t approve of their landscaping efforts—he thought them sentimental and trite—and although they knew Malcolm was probably right, they also didn’t really care.

The novel's cruelest moments are when happiness is suddenly extinguished for one character; the most devastation is found in the implications of these moments on the other three.

It's such an infuriating book, but I think that only a talented author could make me want to swear, weep, and shout about how cruel a book it is. It's not badly-written by any means, but the plot is exhausting.

A single trigger warning doesn't really suffice. Don't read A Little Life and expect an easy read with a happy ending.

However, it's worth noting that the novel does possess beauty, inspiration, and–at times–a glimmer of hope. It's a representation of life, albeit a very hard one, and I'm glad to have read it.

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

18 books for winter: a selection of feel-good novels, big books, and classics to enjoy during colder weather

With lazier days and more time indoors, winter comes with the distinctive benefit of having more time to spend with a good book.

Sometimes a long book - with a hefty list of characters and a inner universe that's hard to exit - is the ideal companion to while away the hours with. At other times, a mood-boosting and feel-good novel is a welcome antidote to the gloomy weather outside. Or you may be longing for the satisfaction of finishing a classic.

Whatever your mood and literary appetite, here are a few novels to get you thinking about winter reading plans.

Immerse yourself in the intricate world of a big book

With War and Peace being so high on my list of best-loved novels (a book I tend to read in summer), it's perhaps not unexpected that other big books follow close behind.

1. Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Normally seven minutes of another person's company was enough to give her a headache so she set things up to live as a recluse. She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately society was not very smart or understanding.

2 & 3. The Secret History and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Secret History seems to be on every winter reading list. While it is an excellent novel to spark a hunger for classics and mystery-solving over the winter months, you could also give The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt's third, most recent, and very beautiful novel - a try.

I've been buried in this novel all weekend: a story of four young men who, having met at college, grow and navigate the realities of their past and present in a web fraught with difficulty, yet never far from art, beauty, and acquiring greater knowledge. 

It's painfully sad at times (at many times) and should come with a trigger warning, but the novel says so much about love, friendship, and what we dedicate our lives to. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, and arguably a good pick if you like Donna Tartt's novels.

One of the ultimate books about books, The Shadow of the Wind is a beautiful book - set in Barcelona - to read in winter, whether read in the original Spanish or in translation.
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

6, 7, 8. His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Harry Potter series

You could also delve into the expansive and magical worlds of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, C.S. Lewis's wintery Narnia, or J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts.

Spend a cosy weekend with a lighthearted novel

9. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

If the Queen of England were truly to stumble upon a mobile library while in pursuit of her corgis, Alan Bennett's imagining would undoubtedly be the result.
What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

10. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A marvellous first-hand account of an American in Britain.
By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains where unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.

11. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project quickly became a favourite lighthearted novel of mine when I read it in early 2014. Meet Don Tillman, a professor of genetics whose talent lies in cultivating order and certainly not romance. Follow his trials, failures, and transformations, and turn your life around a little in the process too.

12. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
There are only two things I can do better than most people. One of them is to make vodka from goats’ milk, and the other is to put together an atom bomb.
13. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

In Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the protagonist flees her trivial anxieties of everyday American life for Antarctica. This makes for a good plot to immerse yourself in while imagining your own winter escape.

Find wisdom in a literary classic

14. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.

15. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As Holmes himself would probably encourage as it gets chilly, dedicate a few hours to getting as comfortable as possible, putting your feet up, and making some deductions.

16. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A classic text for parenting, morality, and snowmen-building.
Atticus strolled over to Miss Maudie’s sidewalk, where they engaged in an arm-waving conversation, the only phrase of which I caught was ‘… erected an absolute morphodite in that yard! Atticus, you’ll never raise ’em!’

17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

This is my favourite by Charles Dickens: a novel full of life lessons, although one that never fails to sadden me somewhat. I still come back to it time and again.
Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.

18. Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners, a short story collection, is where it all begins for James Joyce. If I were to start my journey into Joyce's fiction once more, it would be cold outside, I'd have a lot of time to spare, and I'd have a very open mind. And perhaps a measure of whisky on hand. If you enjoy the experience, I have a lot of good things to say about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too.

You might also like a read of...

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

The factors behind Churchill's powerful speeches: studying history, working smart, and being different

Winston Churchill in RAF uniform, c. 1940. The
UK National Archives.
As Bobette Buster explains in Do Story, Winston Churchill's ongoing prominence in British and international history owes much to his legendary speeches. In 1940, all seemed lost for the British Army. The Battle of Dunkirk had been, according to Churchill, a “colossal military disaster”, and the British were left entirely defenceless on the beaches of Dunkirk. Yet Hitler did not press down when Britain was at its weakest.

In the summer of 1940, a hastily assembled armada of 850 British boats - destroyers, fishing boats, lifeboats and pedalos - sailed to and from France in what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. 338,000 soldiers (minus all weapons, equipment, and armour) were ferried back to the British coastline, many of them on pleasure craft.

Churchill spoke to the nation,

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end ... We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing- grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

And later, 

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.

The US radio journalist Edward R. Murrow reported back to the States, saying, ‘Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.’

During the Blitz and Luftwaffe attacks (these reached a near-daily frequency in the summer of 1940), Churchill compared the young airmen to "knights of old" jousting in the sky. His speeches, broadcasted by the BBC and listened to by Brits gathered around radios, kept up morale when at any other time it would have failed.

Bobette Buster writes towards the end of Do Story,

Stories, told well and acted upon by one generation, ignite the next generation to greatness: because they have heard with their own ears, and seen with their own eyes, what courage can achieve, namely that each individual, emboldened, strengthened and established in their own courage, passes this on to another – like a great Olympic relay race. This was how the war was won.

How did Churchill become such a powerful speaker, thinker, and linguistic craftsman?

1. He spent time in solitude

Churchill endured several ‘wilderness periods’ that were marked by solitude during his life, starting with his lonely childhood in which he was largely ignored by his parents. There's a great account of these years in the Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill (which I'm enjoying as an audiobook), although no biographer could miss this.

2. He studied history

Churchill devoured history, reading Edward Gibbon’s eight-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, MacAulay’s 12-volume History of England, as well as a hundred volumes of the British Annual Register. By retreating into the past, he adopted a vision of modernity that was reinforced with strength, focus, and courage. During the darkest moments of World War II and his wider life (that was often fraught with difficulty), he thought about the resilient individuals who had endured equally trialling moments.

3. He wanted to share his inspired vision

On 29 October 1941, Churchill spoke to Harrow School (where he had once been a student):
Surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the School – surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

4. He knew how he thought and worked best

Churchill is known to have summoned his secretaries at any hour of day, ready to write down his speeches while he paced the room, spoke out loud, and awaited the typewritten draft. By understanding how we worked best, rather than attempting to adhere to any conventional alternative, he increased his potential of achieving high-quality results.

5. He knew that he was different, and didn't attempt to change this 

Winston Churchill stood apart not only in his working style, but in most other respects too. He was one of few to warn of Hitler's dangerous ascent to power that loomed on the horizon. His leadership is also more synonymous with champagne, cigars, and liquor than perhaps any other.

The result? A powerful biography to be inspired by

We could say that Churchill was a product of his upbringing, self-education, willingness to step outside the norm, and self-awareness. By reading the biographical work on his life we can capture a glimpse of the workings behind his oratory and resilience, which can only provide our own lives with a little extra courage.

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms": 10 reasons to tell your story, as inspired by Bobette Buster's Do Story

Monday, 28 September 2015

Homer as a "surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy": The Iliad, injury, and mortality rates

No one can hurry me down to Hades before my time, but if a man's hour is come, be he brave or be he coward, there is no escape for him when he has once been born. - The Iliad
Few readers - or academics - could have read The Iliad with more care than P. B. Adamson has.

As a historian of military medicine, he went through Homer's epic poem and listed every single cut and injury, together with the weapon of cause, and whether the wound was fatal or not. 

The Wrath of Achilles (1819), by Michel Drolling

I read about this in Gavin Francis' excellent Adventures in Human Being: a hugely interesting exploration of the body, one part at a time, with frequent intersections from art, literature, history, and broader science.

As Gavin Francis writes of Homer,
The author of The Iliad was a surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy. [...] There are some medically qualified Homer enthusiasts who have gone so far as to propose him as an early battlefield medic. Repeated through The Iliad are careful accounts of spear wounds, arrow strikes and sword blows, which take care not just to describe the part of the body that has been wounded, but the physiological effects of those wounds and, on occasion, specific treatments.
While The Iliad is not a historical document, something that Adamson fully acknowledges, his findings are fascinating nonetheless.

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis,
published 2015.

Form of attack 

41 per cent of those hit by a stone in Homer's epic end up dead. Archery delivers poorer accuracy than close-up violence: 74 per cent mortality as opposed to 100 per cent for swords and 97 per cent for spear thrusts.

The legs

The legs of Homer's characters are rarely injured, and there are perhaps two main reasons for this. Firstly, the head, neck and trunk are generally the parts of the body aimed for. Secondly, during the Trojan War, men would frequently be fighting thigh-deep in the bodies of their fallen comrades, from the back of a waist-high chariot, or even from the protection of their ships.

The arms 

When the arms are damaged, it’s usually because they are being raised in defence, or injured while themselves raised in violence. 

As Gavin Francis notes in Adventures in Human Being, these patterns are still seen today: when assessing victims of domestic abuse, doctors often check the forearms first, as these are typically raised when warding off an attacker.

Violence and the passing of time

Adamson also explores changes in the form of attack (largely due to developed technology and machinery) and consequent injury, alongside advances in medicine. 

Spears were most deadly during the Trojan War (the setting of The Iliad), while swords had become the most fatal weapon by the time of the Romans described by Virgil in The Aeneid.

From the Crimean War, to WWI, to the present

Despite the horrific squalor and brutality of the Crimean War, the mortality rate from injuries was 26 per cent. 

A similar rate applies to British troops in the First World War. Of two and a quarter million soldiers, under six hundred thousand died as a result of their injuries. 

In World War I, Adamson shows that at their worst, shells and bombs turn up a mortality rate of 29 per cent. This is less than the mortality rate for thrown stones described in The Iliad.

The topic of research is brutal, but brutality - like the fragility of the human body - is hard to gloss over.

But what are men, but leaves that drop from their branches to the earth? Apollo’s speech, The Iliad, Book XXI, v 540

P. B. Adamson. "A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Weapons in the Effectiveness of Producing Battle Casualties", Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 123 (1977) 93–103.

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tolstoy on doing "a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups"

When researching Tolstoy, I find myself noticing a common theme of failure: of not being quite good enough, of not carrying out goals, and of getting into all kinds of trouble.

In War and Peace, there's Pierre's bumbling insecurity and failure to live up to expectations in the early stages of the novel, culminating in the policeman-tied-to-a-bear incident.

Like Pierre, Tolstoy also suffered from peer pressure in his own life. This was namely the influence of the most good-looking of his brothers, Sergey, who had a reputation for good humour and singing continually (as described in Rosamund Bartlett's biography). 

In his memoirs, Tolstoy admits that he “actually wanted to be him”, and as they entered adolescence, Tolstoy made the bad decision to follow Sergey's choices. 

After Tolstoy turned fourteen in August 1842, Sergey and another of his brothers, Nikolay, took him for the first time to a brothel. As he later admitted to a friend, after his first sexual experience he stood by the woman’s bed and wept. 

Tolstoy regretted the lack of moral guidance during his teenage years, and confided in his diary on 1 January 1900 that: 

No moral rules were instilled into me at all - none; yet round about me grown-ups were self-assuredly smoking, drinking and leading a dissolute life [...] And I did a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups.

Critic Lisa Zunshine describes Pierre in War and Peace as a "conscious little rock" for having no idea why he acts the way he does and allowing his sensual desires to triumph over rationality.

Much the same could be said for Tolstoy. Yet because of this, Tolstoy and his fiction seem so real. Failure couldn't be more human.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms": 10 reasons to tell your story, as inspired by Bobette Buster's Do Story

Bobette Buster, a story consultant, lecturer and screenwriter, covers a huge amount in the 112 pages of Do Story

The book - one of the "inspirational pocket guidebooks" by the independent publishing house The Do Book Company - is a beautifully inspiring exploration of storytelling, but is perhaps more so an encouragement to accept vulnerability and open up about ourselves.

This is one of the reasons why I started this website back in 2012, as well as a huge incentive to keep writing. 

But there are many reasons to tell stories, as Do Story explores. Here are some of them. Perhaps use them as encouragement to open up to a friend, think about the storyline of your life so far, or start off by journaling. 

After all, as the wonderful quote by Muriel Rukeyser (and shared in Do Story) goes: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Some reasons to tell your stories (they're much more important than you think)

1. Stories impact everything we do:
How well you tell your story can make the difference to anything you do – whether that’s convincing someone to love you, buy something you’ve made, or give something of themselves; or how well you make your way in the world; or, simply, in sharing who you are.
2. Stories connect us by illuminating common ground.

3. By telling and hearing stories we become inspired. We can envisage a better life for ourselves and become more courageous.

4. Stories provide clarity. They help us to understand our feelings and interpret the world around us.

5. Stories let us share our vision of ourself, our experience, and the world.

6. Stories develop our self-esteem. As Bobette Buster shares, it's thought that the more a child knows his family’s ‘story’ – the better informed he is about his family and obstacles they have overcome in order to survive and thrive – the ‘stronger a child’s sense of control over his life, the higher his self-esteem’.

7. As Bobette Buster says, stories are "prescriptions for courage":
In short, stories are prescriptions for courage. They illustrate how to run the race. And win. We are not born with courage. We may possess bravado, even arrogance. Youth normally does. But courage is a quiet, spiritual muscle discovered only when you face your greatest fear. Stories embolden, strengthen, and establish how we can become our very best.
8. By talking about the turning points in our lives, we can nurture the possibility of transformation.

9. Storytelling gives us a chance to discover who we are. 

10. Our stories make us unique and exceptional. We're the ones who can share them.

Own your own narrative, risk your vulnerability, and tell your stories well. Do Story provides brilliant help for the journey.

If you like Do Books, you might also like the 99u book series. They're both inspiring and beautifully-produced additions to a bookshelf.

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