Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Dubliners and a Defence of James Joyce: The Dead, Eveline, and Paolo Coelho

Image from

I first read Dubliners a few years ago - probably two - after receiving a hardback Penguin volume for Christmas. I read it whilst on a ski holiday, and, like most people who enjoy it, I was completely engrossed by "The Dead". The ending passage is renowned as being exceptionally beautiful, and it was the leading reason why I wanted to read the collection of short stories.

James Joyce is often affected by the reputation of being difficult to read. I've never been brave enough to read Finnegan's Wake, although I'd like to, and whilst I enjoyed Ulysses very much, many others would follow Paolo Coelho's attack on the text:

Today, writers want to impress other writers. [...] One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.

This is strong, damning criticism, and I couldn't disagree more with it. Yet a stigma of nonsense and difficulty still surrounds James Joyce, which I see as a shame. I'd like to consider that most of the readers who view Joyce as unreadable have not read Dubliners. Perhaps I am very wrong, judgemental and presuming, but there may well be some truth in my presumption. People often start with Ulysses or Finnegans Wake after receiving the books as a present, or because they foolishly wish to impress someone or other, and after a discouraging start, they are put off the author permanently.

Yet Dubliners is so simple, concise and readable. Joyce does not allude to straight-forward points in an indecipherable style that is about as useful as hieroglyphics; rather, he says it as it is, and he says it directly. In last Saturday's Guardian, I read the following short review by Sebastian Barry, on "Eveline" in Dubliners, in response to being asked his favourite short story:

Finnegans Wake has defeated me, although guilt has driven me to dip into it over the decades. I read Ulysses in a little octagonal house on Omey Island in 1976, but got disenchanted and disheartened at the entrance to Nighttown. I have gone back to it over the years, feeling not only guilty but alarmed. They are the two ticking bombs of Irish literature.

But I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Back Square when I was a student at Trinity College, standing all day in the weak summer sunlight, and crazy in the head with admiration and gratitude at the end of it. Similarly Dubliners, given to me by one of my grandfathers, whose taste otherwise ran to Kipling.

I chose "Eveline" to read because, 40 years later, I am still not over it. The beautiful and threatening set-up, family horrors half-alluded to, and the happinesses so fairly itemised … The "manly" man that comes to rescue her. The full and heartfelt understanding and encouragement of the reader. The scene at the dockside. I am still inclined to cry out the same thing I cried out the first time I read it, aged 17: "Get on the bloody boat, Eveline."

Not only is the collection easy to read, but the stories are beautifully written. For instance, from "Araby", there is the following passage:

When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

And then there is the ending of "The Dead", which has allowed so many to regain faith in Joyce's capability as a writer. If you wish to read the short story and find out the ending for yourself, look away now! Otherwise, here are the final few sentences:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

If you have previously sworn an eternal enmity with James Joyce, perhaps reconsider your view of him with the start of a new year. Even if you read just one short story from Dubliners, it may well become a lifelong favourite!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Wintertime by Robert Louis Stevenson

On the way past this field I heard jangling bells, and stupidly presumed that the noise
belonged to the sheep. It was only on the way back that I saw the real culprit.

The weather here in England's south east has been so dreary this week. It's hard to feel christmassy when it's raining and windy, but hopefully festive feelings will come tomorrow. It will be Christmas Eve, after all. As of yet I haven't been listening to any Christmas music, and I haven't done that much decorating. However, my boyfriend stayed with me this weekend, and we exchanged gifts and had a lovely meal in town yesterday. I'm also home with my family, and feeling happy and healthy. 

Tomorrow I'll be creating the traditional nut loaf (for me alone to eat), perhaps reading A Christmas Carol, and doing last minute organisation. Then, on Christmas Day I'll be seeing one set of grandparents for lunch, and the others for teatime. My Mum's in England for the first Christmas in around seven years, which I'm sure will be quite strange for the rest of us!

This morning my boyfriend, Chris, and I decided to walk down the road briefly, camera and warm layers in tow. Despite the sun being decidedly absent, the views across the fields were still welcome. There's always a certain freshness about winter that makes a change from being indoors. The area in which I live is so great for walking, and whilst I'm home for Christmas I'd like to spend more time outdoors. Nonetheless, I'll always be one for snuggling up indoors with a good book, which explains my finding of the following poem this morning!  

All the best, and merry Christmas!


Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, 21 December 2012

The End of the World, Again, and John Donne

Image for the 2012 Mayan apocalypse fear from the BBC.

Humans are obsessed with the end of the world. The concept of meaninglessness, or non-existence, is deeply threatening at a psychological level, and we generally wish to believe that our personal lives are significant and important to the whole. One BBC article includes the following quote,

"It is a very ancient pattern in human thought. It is rooted in ancient, even pre-biblical Middle Eastern myths of ultimate chaos and ultimate struggle between the forces of order and chaos," says cultural historian Paul S Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

Around the world in preparation for today (according to time zones), survival pods have been built in China's Hebei province and panic-buying of candles has been reported in the Sichuan province, whilst in Russia sales of tinned goods and matches have surged. Yet this is not unfamiliar: the Romans panicked at predictions their city would be destroyed in 634 BC, millennial fears gripped Europe ahead of the year 1000 AD, and during the English Civil War, groups like the Fifth Monarchists believed the end was nigh. The aforementioned are only a few examples of feared apocalypses.

Copernicus, who can be seen as an influence in John
Donne's poetry (particularly in "An Anatomy
of the World")
Recently, I've been studying John Donne's poetic depiction of what he called the "new Philosophy": the rise of observed, evidenced knowledge by thinkers such as Galileo and Copernicus which replaced the relatively stagnant, conventional knowledge of Aristotle. Donne followed new scientific proposals avidly, but he displayed concern for the consequences. When Copernicus declared that the sun was at the centre of the universe, Martin Luther responded, “The fool will upset the whole science of astronomy”. A similarly lamentable declaration is made by John Donne in “An Anatomy of the World”: “’tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”. On the surface, this poem marks the death of Elizabeth Drury (whom the poem is dedicated to), yet there is a much wider solemn vision created by Donne. It seems that Donne is not only marking Drury’s death, but also the deterioration of the world: it is repeated to be “a sick world”, a “carcass”, and that “from the first hour [did] decay”. To Donne, “so is the world’s whole frame/Quite out of joint, almost created lame”.

Whilst Copernicus was, in fact, right about the earth not being at the universe's centre, it's not too likely that the world will end today. Maybe now that I've written this, it will, who knows. My apologies if it does. Nonetheless, Donne's insecurity and concern can be compared to the frequent fears of modern humankind for the future, both in a personal, individual way, and in a "ahh, the whole world is ending", collective way.

On days like today, with the media leaping on the widespread potential of human fear and panic, we can best understand Donne's fear for the future of the "safe", conventional world. We're quite sure that we'll wake up tomorrow, but conversely we can't help but slightly worry about the future and significance of our lives. I've just seen the following post on twitter, which encapsulates the hype and encouraged panic:

  – Join  LIVE for all things apocalyptic around the globe  (via )

Is this even serious? My thirteen-year brother, who is quite the worrier, seemed rather anxious going to bed last night. He pottered around the house, evading bedtime even longer than usual, and then wished me a good end of the world. Poor kid. He'll probably be annoyed when he realises that he has to do his homework after all.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

My Top Rated Books on Goodreads

You can tell a lot about a person based on what books they value most highly. These are some of the books that have shaped me most. The Death of Ivan Ilyich changed my perspective on living a good life, and Meditations inspired my willpower to move away from the past.

Those two books are generally quite well-known and regarded as classics, unlike, for instance, When God Was a Rabbit. However, I enjoyed the latter novel so much; it managed to contain both humour and serious topics with such great balance. And, of course, there was a rabbit called God. I really hope that Sarah Winman writes some more fiction.

It must be said that not all of my favourite books have high ratings. Great Expectations, The Odyssey, and Virginia Woolf's The Waves don't make my five-star list, yet they are some of my favourites. But anyway, that's not the main point of my post.

Here are my top rated books on Goodreads:

  • Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories - Leo Tolstoy
  • Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh
  • War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
  • Why I Write - George Orwell
  • How Fiction Works - James Wood
  • First Love and Other Stories - Ivan Turgenev
  • A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings - Charles Dickens
  • The Lover's Dictionary - David Levithan
  • When God Was a Rabbit - Saran Winman
  • Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
  • Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
  • Once in a House on Fire - Andrea Ashworth
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
  • The Stranger - Albert Camus
  • If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor
  • Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez
  • The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
  • Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  • La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits) - Isabel Allende
  • La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation - Daisy Hay
  • The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
  • Looking for Alaska - John Green

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng: Finding Strength in Poetry

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, a novel set in Malaya. Image source.
The Garden of Evening Mists is such a beautifully written story of strength, courage and the passing of time. It is the second novel by Tan Twan Eng to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize: his first novel, The Gift of Rain, was published in 2007 and long-listed for the award that year. This year, The Garden of Evening Mists was published, and short-listed. Perhaps his next novel will win!

Goodreads provides the following plot overview:
It's Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice 'until the monsoon comes'. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling's friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of 'Yamashita's Gold' and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

It's a fascinating plot, and I always love reading narratives that demonstrate a character overcoming mental, and physical, challenges. A few years ago I wrote a literature essay on catharsis in The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and it would be interesting to consider these two novels alongside Tan Twan Eng's sometime. Here are some particularly poignant passages from The Garden of Evening Mists:

"How did it keep you alive?"
"We escaped into make-believe worlds", I said. "Some imagined themselves building the house of their dreams, or constructing a yacht. The more details they could include, the better they were insulated from the horrors around them. (p57)
I withdrew from the other prisoners, preferring to lose myself in my own thoughts. To distract myself I created a garden in my mind, calling it up from nothing more than memory. (p271)

We can all learn from these quotes, whether in order to defend yourself in the present, or to reinforce your mental strength for the future. When I'm stressed or struggling with something, I like to recite poetry in my head. Also, recently I have learned to create a "safe place" that I can evoke in order to bring feelings of comfort and positivity. Francine Shapiro writes extensively about this in Getting Past Your Past, a very useful book of self-help strategies that I will probably review soon.

Moving on, despite the Southeast Asian identity of the novel, there are several inclusions of English poetry. Both Shelley and Yeats are mentioned, and their poetry becomes cleverly intwined into the narrative. Shelley's "The Cloud" is particularly intrinsic to the plot's movement, and, as it is a piece that I hadn't studied extensively before, I was glad to come across it. Here is the last stanza, which presents the poem's extended metaphor of the unending cycle of nature:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

On the whole, it's a novel full of beautiful descriptions of landscape - you can hardly find flaws in that.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

BBC Sports Personality 2012 - An Edgar Guest Poem, Virgil & Courage

2012 has been such a year for sport. There's been the Tour de France, Wimbledon, and of course the London Olympic Games (among so many more events - I'm slightly biased). This evening the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards were staged, and it was such a great way to top off the year's successes. As with the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, someone cleverly decided to include literary references into the Sports Personality awards this evening.

BBC Sports Personality 2012 Poems, Jess Ennis
BBC Sports Personality 2012. Of course, the lovely Jess Ennis. Image from

Firstly, whilst displaying footage of the great rowing success for Britain in the Olympics, an extract from Virgil's The Boat Race, from the Aeneid, was read by Kenneth Branagh:

They man the thwarts, their arms strained to the oars; straining, they await the signal, while throbbing fear and eager passion for glory drain each bounding heart. Then, when the clear trumpet sounded, all at once shot forth from their starting places; the mariners’ shouts strike the heavens; as arms are drawn back the waters are turned into foam. They cleave the furrows abreast, and all the sea gapes open, uptorn by the oars and triple-pointed beaks. Now with such headlong speed in the two-horse chariot race do the cars seize the plain and dart forth from their stalls! Not so wildly over their dashing steeds do the charioteers shake the waving reins, bending forward to the lash. Then with applause and shouts of men, and zealous cries of partisans, the whole woodland rings; the sheltered beach rolls up the sound, and the hills, smitten, echo back the din.

Then, the following poem by Edgar Guest was recited by Idris Elba, an actor from East London. I've never heard it before, but it's such an inspiring, motivational piece. I always like to push myself, and do what I think I could not, and therefore I really should read this regularly! As part of my EMDR therapy finalisation, I had to imagine five people that strengthened me, and five memories that I was proud of. When I bring these up in my head, I cannot fail to feel strong and capable of anything I want to do. I've achieved a lot, been through a lot, and I'm sure that I'll go on to achieve a lot. It's fantastic how sport can reinforce your belief in your own capability and strength, and motivate others to follow in the footsteps of their heroes.

It Couldn't Be Done - Edgar Guest
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

My Experience of EMDR Therapy

I hope that those interested in EMDR therapy will find this post useful. However, this is a long post - you've been warned!

Why did I feel I needed EMDR?
If you've been following my blog or Twitter, you probably know that I have recently undergone EMDR therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (yeah, let's stick with EMDR).

This was due to certain memories that kept troubling me, as well as difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and dealing with the memories calmly. I was recommended EMDR many years ago, and last year I came across it again in the brilliant Healing Without Freud or Prozac by David Servan-Schreiber.

I had been diagnosed with PTSD, which I had thought to be due to my parents' divorce. I could replay the night that it happened with unusual clarity, although I had no recall of the time periods around it, and any related thoughts brought intense waves of feeling.

In the NHS therapy sessions that I had before starting private EMDR therapy, I'd spend the majority of sessions crying or on the verge of a panic attack (or in the midst of one). Clearly, the divorce had affected me in a very strong and strange way. Yet, as it turned out, it wasn't the root cause of my problems.

When going through a chronological history of my past with my new therapist, I briefly mentioned that sometime before the divorce (I can't easily place either event) I saw my sister nearly drown. Like the divorce, I could re-play it so clearly in my mind, and my body felt like I was re-experiencing it when I did.

The therapist told me something along the lines of the following: you can be traumatised by one event, but the symptoms can be delayed in appearance until another, less "traumatic" event. Therefore, the incident with my sister seemed to be the route cause of my issues, although I had barely given any thought to it. However, it would explain why I've always hated water and swimming...

How does EMDR work?
Here's the EMDR Association's description of how the therapy works:

When I person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level. When a person recalls the distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes the memories are so distressing, the person tries to avoid thinking about the distressing event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.

Some find that the distressing memories come to mind when something reminds them of the distressing event, or sometimes the memories just seem to just pop into mind. The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.
In the process the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity, so that the memories are less distressing and seem more like 'ordinary' memories. The effect is believed to be similar to that which occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side. EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it was what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt or thought.

Did EMDR work?
It's quite hard not to feel sceptical of the treatment before and during therapy. My therapist used a light bar, and it was difficult not to feel stupid watching a light moving left to right. However, it did become a lot more natural, and I was able to "just let things happen" more easily (I was told to do so many times). If you struggle with OCD, as I have over the years, it does make the therapy more difficult, and so make sure that you communicate with your therapist the best you can.

After each thirty-second (more or less) interval of focusing on uncomfortable bodily sensations whilst watching the lights, I was asked how I felt, and if anything had come up. Yes, it was often tempting to tell white lies. A few times I said that I felt calmer in order to try and move away from the discomfort, but it was clear that wasn't the truth. The therapist continued to suggest further intervals of watching the lights until I genuinely seemed calmer, or until ta-dah!/lightbulb moments occurred (I'm sure this isn't the clinical term).

For instance, after focusing on the divorce, I eventually said aloud: "It wasn't my fault, it was just unfortunate that I overhead all of those things. I feel so lucky that I can now live alone and distance myself from people and situations that upset me. Back then I had no choice but to stay put."

Similarly, after following the light bar whilst thinking about the thoughts and feelings associated with my sister almost drowning, I came up with the following: "Anyone would have reacted with panic. However, I was very young myself, and it wasn't my responsibility to save her".

In the last session I had with the therapist, I did the PTSD scale again. At the beginning of the course of therapy I was scoring very highly, but now I was clinically not suffering from it. It was a relief to hear that, although it's quite strange to be diagnosed and undiagnosed within such a short space of time.

I can talk about the once-troubling events without discomfort, and they feel much more like ordinary memories. However, I am still having disturbed sleep and I still get very easily startled. I'm sure, nonetheless, that with time and rest old habits will decrease, and I'll feel entirely free from my past. But on the whole, I found the therapy to be immensely helpful, and I'm feeling so much more capable to live and enjoy my life.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Susan Cain's "Quiet": The Power of Introverts & My Experience of Social Anxiety Disorder

Quiet by Susan Cain - social anxiety and introversion

As an introvert who has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, I could really relate to "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". It's written by Susan Cain, a lovely lady who I briefly discussed in my "Five TED Talks for Social Anxiety" post.

Cain explores the difference between introverts and extroverts in such an engaging, highly-researched and personal way, and I certainly learned a lot. Cain describes the innate talents of introverts, the ideal way of nurturing and educating them, and the problematic extrovert ideal in our society.

The book seems so connected to the author's identity, and it's clear how much time and energy she put into it. Perhaps this is due to her introversion - it often determines a greater likelihood of thinking projects through, working creatively, and considering the best way to project research.

Rosa Parks: An Introvert to Admire

I enjoyed the stories, anecdotes and memories included in Quiet. Cain frequently alludes to strong-willed yet stereotypically shy women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks. Cain tells a story about Rosa Parks, the admirable civil rights activist, that particularly struck me. I'd never heard it before, but it added so much to my view of her. In 1943, a decade prior to the event she is most famous for (when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger), Parks boarded a Montgomery bus through the front door.

At the time, this was a completely forbidden act for an African-American. The bus driver, James F. Blake, insisted that Parks, who had already paid, exit the bus and re-enter through the other door. In response, Parks intentionally dropped her purse and sat down in a whites-only seat to pick it up. In order to stave off an expected violent response, Parks exited, but the bus departed before she re-entered.  Parks had battled with the driver and the driver had won, at the expense of Parks’ dignity.

Parks vowed to never again ride a bus driven by James F. Blake, and she often waited for a subsequent bus in order to avoid facing him. However, on December 1 1955, she boarded the bus without paying attention to who was behind the wheel. So when Blake ordered her to cede her seat to a white traveller, he also resurrected the memory of a transgression a dozen years prior — and Parks, historically, stood her ground against a nemesis from her past. Despite her introverted character, Rosa Parks stood up to him, and helped change the path of American history.

My Experience of Introversion and Social Anxiety Disorder

If I had the opportunity and the reasoning, there are some people from my past that I'd like to stand up to. For one, I'd confront a despised science teacher that I had during my A Levels. she would wear six-inch heels and short, revealing dresses on a daily basis, and inevitably she was the highlight of the average male student's day. I couldn't bear her. Her lessons consisted of extroverted activities such as group work, and practical learning; all things that I found so challenging, especially in a learning environment.

An example of her greatly innovative ideas was "speed-dating". I hope that you've never experienced this, at least not in a classroom environment. The class would divide into two parallel lines, standing facing each other, and you would have to exchange a piece of information that you'd learned about a topic with the student standing opposite you. Then one line would move along, and you'd repeat the exercise with countless other students before a class discussion (or interrogation) would take place. I'm sure that she hated me as much as I despised her, as evident in how she'd boom across the classroom, "Have you all discussed? THAT INCLUDES YOU LUCY".

I can't remember how many times I cried either during or after her lessons (and yes, embarrassingly I was about seventeen years old). As I couldn't learn anything from her teaching style, I dedicated time every morning to teaching myself in a quiet, simple, and reflective way that suited me. And funnily enough, I received 96% in the exam: the highest grade that a student she taught earned that year. Perhaps that, and dropping her classes shortly after, was revenge enough for how she belittled me.

Final Thoughts

I sincerely hope that Cain's work helps trigger the rise of introvert-friendly schooling and work environments. If this does not happen, the future Steve Wozniaks and Theodor Seuss Geisels (Dr. Seuss) of this world may never surface.

Science, culture and technology, among many other sectors, may well stagnate if introverts cannot develop in a way suited to them. This, as opposed to an increasing number of "fake extroverts" in the world, would be so beneficial to our society.

And also, the modern Rosa Parks of our era must never feel that she, or he, cannot speak out: being a more quiet, sensitive type does in no way prevent speaking out, or acting, for both the greater good and a common cause. If you're an introvert too, please remember this. Also, hello extrovert readers - I hope you don't feel ignored!

You can buy Quiet on The Book Depository.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

"Two Spains": León Felipe and Antonio Machado

Francisco de Goya's Fight with Cudgels (c.1820-23) can be seen
 as a premonition of the civil wars of Spain. Image from Wikipedia.

I thought that I'd post another poem by León Felipe today. Included in Ganarás La Luz, "Hay dos Españas" reflects the uncertainty and violence that surrounded the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the left-right political divisions that led to it. Here is is:

There are two Spains: that of the soldier and that of the poet. That of the fratricidal sword and that of the wandering song. There are two Spains and only one song. And this is the song of the wandering poet:

Soldier, the hacienda,
The house,
The horse
And the pistol are yours.
The ancient voice of the earth is mine.
You keep everything and leave me naked and wandering across the world...
But I leave you mute...mute!
So how will you gather the wheat
And feed the fire
If I have taken the song?

Felipe writes so beautifully, and provides so much to think about. If I had to choose, I would certainly choose poetry over violence; undoubtedly. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider whether both concepts are natural, and vital, parts of life. Where there is life, do violence and poetry automatically follow? Out of the two, Dionysian, primitive violence automatically strikes me as the most natural. Although, perhaps there may be a cultural side to the life of animals that we don't know about!

It is interesting to compare Felipe's poem to Antonio Machado's poem that also deals with the "Two Spains" concept, included in his Proverbios y Cantares. As part of the Generation of 1898, Antonio felt that one Spain was heavily Catholic, reactionary, and centrist, and the other a secular, progressive, modern, post-Enlightenment European Spain.

There is a Spaniard today, who wants
to live and is starting to live,
between one Spain dying
and another Spain yawning.

Little Spaniard just now coming
into the world, may God keep you.
One of those two Spains
will freeze your heart.

I find Machado's poem to be very political and quite unsettling - the thought of a "Little Spaniard" growing up to such conflict and rivalry isn't exactly positive. And then there's the diction of "dying", "yawning", and "freeze", emphasising how difficult the circumstances really were. I'd like to learn more about each poet, and understand how the civil war affected them.

I hope that you enjoy both pieces, and that you find the two interesting to compare!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Walking Home by Simon Armitage: Wordsworth; Gawain; Above Ickornshaw, Black Huts

I've been really interested in the relationship between poets and walking lately. I'm writing a university essay on how Antonio Machado dealt with the death of his young wife by walking and writing poetry, and I often wish that I had Wordsworth's infatigable legs that allowed him to write so many great nature poems.

After buying a signed copy, I began reading Walking Home by Simon Armitage - a writer best known for his poetry - on the way back from a short stay in Cornwall with my boyfriend. The book was perfect for the train, although I didn't have the time to finish it until about two weeks later. In the biographical text, Armitage documents his decision in 2010 to walk the Pennine Way in the "wrong direction" (from North to South as opposed to the reverse). What really individualises his journey is his decision to travel as a "modern troubadour", travelling without a penny in his pocket, and stopping along the way to give poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs, and living rooms.

Armitage is so greatly supported by fellow poets, family, friends, and locals along the Pennine way. To me, the most charismatic character was his friend "Slug", a chaotic university friend who unexpectedly joins him for part of the walk:

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?
"Thought I'd surprise you."
"How long are you walking for?"
"All the way. Unless it's too far. Windermere?"
"Where are you staying?"
"Dunno. But don't worry. You'll think of something."

Armitage's writing did make me laugh on several occasions. Also, I loved the literary references that he makes: the story is so enriched by references to Wordsworth's passion of walking, and evocations of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and The Odyssey. When a poet decides to walk the Pennine Way, you naturally expect some literary reflections to surface. However, I was surprised that he didn't write a lot poetry. I realise that this sounds really harsh; you can't exactly declare, "Simon Armitage, you're a disgrace to the literary world, how hard is it to write poems when you're walking across Britain with nothing else to do?" To give the man some credit, he did include one poem in Walking Home that I really enjoyed. He wrote it when awake early one morning, right at the top of Ted Hughes' childhood home, where he happened to be staying (as you do...). I've copied the poem directly from the book, and so I apologise for any typos.

Above Ickornshaw, Black Huts

are raised against damp,
on footings of red brick,
landlocked chalets lashed to the bedrock

with steel guy-ropes
and telegraph wire,
braced for Atlantic gales.

All plank and slat,
the salvaged timber
ooze bitumen

out of the grain, a liquorice sweat,
its formaldehyde breath
disinfecting the clough

for a mile downwind.
Seen from a distance,
these tarred pavilions or lodges

make camp on the ridge
in silhouette - black, identical sheds
of identical shape,

though up close
no two are alike,
being customised shacks,

a hillbilly hotchpotch
of water-butts, stoops,
a one-man veranda,

a stove-pipe wearing a tin hat.
And all boarded shut,
all housing

a darkroom darkness
with pin-hole light
falling on nail or hook

or a padlocked box,
coffin-shaped, coiled
in a ship's chain.

Mothballed stations on disused lines
neither mapped nor named.
Birds avoid them -

some say the hatches fly open
and shotguns appear, blazing
at tame grouse, 

that inside
they're all whisky and smoke,
all Barbour and big talk,

but others whisper
the locals sit here
in deckchairs, with flasks,

watching the dunes of peat,
binoculars raised,
waiting for downed airmen

or shipwrecked souls
to crawl
from the moor's sea.

I do think that this book was worth reading, although occasionally it became a little monotonous, and the ending did infuriate me rather a lot (I won't provide any spoilers!) However, to end this post on a positive note, here's a lovely extract about Rackwick Bay, on the island of Hoy (Scotland). If the book had more passages like this one, I would definitely have enjoyed it more - there's something so appealing about poetry being linked to landscape.

To the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, whose entire poetic universe didn't extend much further than the view from his window and the graveyard at the end of the road, Rackwick became a sacred location, a depopulated valley and dramatic bay which opened its arms to the blast of the Atlantic, full of ghosts, legends, stories and poems. The trip to Rackwick, usually hitched on a fishing boat or passing ferry, became a kind of pilgrimage to Mackay Brown, a challenge to his permanently frail health but a source of nourishment for his soul and his writing. Standing there with the gold flakes of his TB injection tumbling through his bloodstream, I think he say something of Eden in Rackwick, the long grassed valley where the hull of a glacier had once berthed between two barren summits"
Rackwick Bay. Image from

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook: Mental Health and High-School Books

The Silver Linings Playbook and mental health
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, a wonderful story of overcoming mental health issues. Image from
In a recent radio interview, I heard Bradley Cooper being interviewed about playing the protagonist Pat in the film version of The Silver Linings Playbook (a novel written by Matthew Quick). After hearing the plot, I immediately wanted to read the book. And watch the film, of course, as Mr Cooper is in it. Here's the storyline, courtesy of Goodreads:

Meet Pat Peoples. Pat has a theory: his life is a movie produced by God. And his God-given mission is to become physically fit and emotionally literate, whereupon God will ensure him a happy ending—the return of his estranged wife, Nikki. (It might not come as a surprise to learn that Pat has spent several years in a mental health facility.) The problem is, Pat’s now home, and everything feels off. No one will talk to him about Nikki; his beloved Philadelphia Eagles keep losing; he’s being pursued by the deeply odd Tiffany; his new therapist seems to recommend adultery as a form of therapy. Plus, he’s being haunted by Kenny G.

Yes, it really is a light-hearted, easy-to-read novel. But I've been wanting to read something like this - a short novel that can be read in a day or so - for too long now. Because of uni, I've been surrounded by Renaissance literature that doesn't exactly provide me with relaxing time off. Yes, the text that I study are wonderfully written, but they're a bit... intense.

Pat is someone that I can relate to, chuckle at, and shout at from the comfort of my sofa. He's so blinded by his love for his ex-wife, and you really want to see him find the "closure" that is so often encouraged to him by the other characters. In order to try and win Nikki, his ex-wife, back, Pat yearns to better himself. For years I have been overwhelmed by desire for self-improvement too, and so I can relate entirely. If you read this post of mine, you'll see that Tolstoy would have related to him too (ah, such a tenuous link for a Saturday morning). One of Pat's main modes of improvement is exercise, and he obsessively covers a daily routine of weights, stretching, and jogging. When jogging, he is accompanied more and more by Tiffany, a character who, like Pat, is also in therapy for various reasons. Tiffany, to be honest, is a bit nuts, but she's a vibrant, forward woman. She did annoy me slightly, mostly for her stalking tendencies towards Pat, but she's clearly good-hearted, and she and Pat become even closer when entering a dance competition.

Then there's Pat's brother, Jake, who - as you may expect with this type of plot - is perfect. He's a successful stockbroker, he has a posh apartment, and he's married a concert pianist with whom he's had a beautiful daughter. His situation is all quite envy-inducing, but it also makes you pity Pat, who may well have been in his situation were it not for his time in a psychiatric ward. Additionally, whilst receiving medical care he lost all sense of time, as well as many of his memories. However, Jake and Pat still share one hobby: American football. I can't say that I know anything about the sport, or care much about it, but the amount it was mentioned somehow didn't bore me in the slightest.

A hobby of Pat's that did interest me more, unsurprisingly, was reading. Although he reads to try and win Nikki back, who works as an English teacher, Pat does become influenced and inspired by the books that he reads. These include Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Plath's The Bell Jar, and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. We see Pat ranting about how depressing they are, and how it is cruel of Nikki to teach them to maleable adolescents. However, he eventually receives the following advice, which I found as lovely as it was clichéd, which helps him view the novels in a different light:

"Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly [...] and literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for people to endure nobly."

To Pat, literature allows him to consider his own mental health and past in a cathartic manner. It helps him to realise that he is not alone with his issues, but also that he doesn't have to agree with the novels that he reads. Reading allows him to think more for himself, and partly provides the circumstances that enable him to reconsider how he is living.

There are a few parts of The Silver Linings Playbook that aren't incredibly well written, particularly around the halfway mark. There are some dancing-related moments that seem very cheesy, but as Quick was writing from the perspective of Pat, perhaps that was intentional. However, there were other passages that I really admired, smiled at, and wanted to share with others. I'd recommend that you read this if you enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I wouldn't say that this is a young-adult book. It's merely a light-hearted novel with some more serious themes considered.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Life as a Journey - Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy

Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy analysis
The Return of Odysseus, Claude Lorrain, 1644. From
Some time ago, a reader of my blog called Rafael recommended me the poem "Ithaca" by Constantine P. Cavafy. I'd never come across it before, but I'm so glad that I read it.

"Ithaca" is based on Homer's account of Odysseus's journey home. As you may expect from this influence, the poem has so much to say about life in all its complexity, with both the setbacks and the positive memories that become inevitable. Like so many self-help books advise, the poem urges you to live for the journey rather than the expected end-point, in order to have a flourishing and fulfilling life.

As "Ithaca" suggests, we should not wish away our time, but "ask that [our] way be long". We may have problems at work, financial worries, or have lost a loved one, but when we eventually, and inevitably, overcome these troubles (or when we reach our own metaphorical Ithaca) we will be so much the stronger. Moreover, if the same challenges reoccur - which is likely - we will be able to deal with them in a much stronger and more experienced way.

Be aware of how life is for you now, and ensure to be appreciative of all the art, culture, and beauty that you could quite easily have never seen. I often think in this way when times are hard, and it really helps lift my mood. It's so easy just to spend time looking at a beautiful painting, listening to a timeless piece of music, or reading a classic. Or, quite simply, dwell on what you're learning from your current hardship. After a bad relationship and breakup some years back, I learned not to depend on others for my own happiness and wellbeing. Similarly, spending time away from home has helped me be grateful for my family and home when they are accessible.

Because of the experiences that I found difficult to deal with, I now feel more prepared to deal with my future, and I'm excited at what's to come. Also, I can of course write about my memories and my journey forwards! I hope that you enjoy this poem:


When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy

Friday, 16 November 2012

Living a Balanced Life: A Diagram to Deal with Anxiety

I have a copy of a diagram similar to the one below on the wall by my desk, and I find it helpful to look at every so often. I frequently find that some areas of my life are taking up all of my time, and that I need to pay more attention to other activities. Some of the points don't apply to my life, for instance I'm not religious, but I thought that I'd leave them on for others. 

If you have been struggling with anxiety or depression lately, think about how much time you dedicate to the following areas. For instance, are you working too much, or not working enough? Personally, I need to make sure that I dedicate enough time to relaxation, pleasure, and finding purpose and meaning in order to avoid burn-out. Reading is the best way for me to do this, particularly if the book is relatable to me and allows me to understand my state of mind a little better. As the name of my blog indicates, I find reading Tolstoy to be the most helpful for this. Re-reading War and Peace this summer helped me to understand the beauty around me, alongside the continual flux of human life. My life may not be the same as it used to be, but I realise that this is by no means a negative change.

On another note, I find it hardest to fulfil my required quota of social support. To the agoraphobic side of my personality, I need to assert the following:

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” ― Virginia Woolf

I hope that you find this useful, and that you are influenced to consider how your own life is currently mapped out. With a few tweaks and changes, your wellbeing could really benefit. 

Diagram for dealing with anxiety

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Bibliotherapy & Reading for Wellbeing: The Novel Cure by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud

Bibliotherapy can heal all manner of feelings
Reading for wellbeing. Image from

As I was casually reading the School of Life blog yesterday, contemplating an idyllic reading retreat not far from here (which I'm sure would be ridiculously expensive), I came across a book to be published late 2013 which should be quite exciting. It's to be published by Canongate, and is entitled The Novel Cure. You can probably guess what the contents entail, particularly if you're reading my blog: yes, bibliotherapy. The authors, Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud, met whilst studying at Cambridge University, and began discussing the healing and reassuring power of literature. Over the following years they prescribed literature to friends and family, whilst Susan wrote novels and Ella worked as an artist.

Here's what The Bookseller have to say about it:
It offers a range of "novel cures" for ailments including apathy, depression and having trouble finding the right man. Lord said: "The range of novel cures is wonderfully broad—from Nancy Mitford to Marian Keyes, from Tolstoy to le Carré—and promises to offer an entertaining and surprising new approach to thinking about your favourite books and discovering new gems."
It's probably obvious that I'm won over by the Tolstoy mention. I wonder how it will live up to the similarly themed Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch, which I collected my thoughts on in this post.

I'll keep you updated on any other news I hear about the publication and contents.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets, Music, Books, and Favourites

This week, as part of my Renaissance literature module, I'm studying Shakespeare's sonnets. After facing texts such as The Faerie Queene and The Jew of Malta in recent weeks, I'm thoroughly enjoying the leisurely, rewarding study of Shakespeare's poetry. I received a beautiful edition a few Christmases ago, but unfortunately it's at home. Therefore I'm having to make do with the selection in my Norton anthology!

This morning's lecture was enjoyable, even when the lecturer said that she had some music to play at the end, time permitting. Oh please don't, I thought. Throughout school I always hated attempts to make lessons fun or more creative for the "kinaesthetic learners" (we all stupidly got tested and put into learning categories). But typically time was available at the end, and the whole lecture theatre was enabled a listen of the lecturer's favourite song (which she emphasises is her song of choice whilst jogging, no less). Her choice, quite aptly, was Rufus Wainwright's musical adaptation of Sonnet 43:

I wonder what you think of the video, if you've chosen to view it. I think I'd need a few more listens to form a proper opinion, but I do quite like it. I'd prefer reading the poem alone, without a musical accompaniment, but Wainwright hasn't done a bad job. Hearing his song has made me understand the poem's content a little better, and it makes me recall the time I've spent at night staring at the ceiling and thinking things over. Yes, the poem largely deals with dreams, but I prefer to think of the almost-dreaming state before sleep, which I have more control over. Dreams can be nasty affairs.

Today I've also been thinking about Shakespeare's sonnets in relation to literature, namely due to an old Guardian article by poet, writer and music Don Paterson that describes his quest to match a sonnet to twenty-five of the World Book Night 2010 titles. The results are amusing and nourishingly intertextual for any bibliophile. Pride and Prejudice is matched to Sonnet 73, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds", and du Maurier's Rebecca gets Sonnet 131: "Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,/ As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel." I also enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy being paired with Sonnet 64:

"When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage …
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay …"

It's all very clever. If asked, I'd be unsure which Shakespearean sonnet to choose as my favourite. I've always loved the last couplet of Sonnet 18, but it's not a very original choice: "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." I love the word "muse" - I even wrote a post about it once - and I adore how Shakespeare utilises it in his sonnets, but today I'll choose Sonnet 33, greatly due to my love for glorious mornings:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace: 
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

I'm so grateful to be able to study Shakespeare's sonnets; it acts as a perfect reminder to return to them more in my daily life. There really is so much to learn from all of them. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday: Red and White Poppies and Peace


I've seen poppy pins everywhere this week - when I went into town yesterday they were being sold on every street corner, and it was a rare to see a coat or jumper unadorned by one. I've bought one, as that's what you're meant to do, but I'm not sure if I agree with the act of wearing one. This doubt came into mind when I was listening to a Radio 2 debate programme, in which the poppies that I've grown up wearing were discouraged.

Firstly, we wear poppies because those who fought in Belgium and northern France noticed how persistently the flower bloomed in the area. Very sadly, the bones of the dead are still collected as the farmers plough such fields. The poppy became a recurring image in the war poetry that resulted from the combat, particularly in John MacRae's In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The concept of selling artifical poppies began in America and soon spread to France and Britain. The British Legion approved of the idea, and ordered for at least 1.5 million to be produced by November 11, 1921. They sold out almost instantly. By the end of the 20th century the British Legion were producing annually over 32 million 'lapel' poppies, 100,000 wreaths and 400,000 Remembrance crosses. In the week before Remembrance Day poppies are everywhere, particularly on television. Poppies are nationalist and patriotic symbols, and their prominence may seem to suggest that they are innocuous and accepted emblems, but this isn't entirely accurate. 

To begin with, poppies connote political connections (that's rarely a good thing). In Northern Ireland, for example, it became regarded as a Protestant Loyalist symbol because of its connection with British patriotism. Some also say that poppies endorse military power and justify war. If the dead are said to have 'sacrificed' their lives, then why did we fall back into war? Why can't we stop occupying other countries and bombing and killing children? It doesn't really make much sense, at least not to me. 

Ever since 1933, white poppies appeared on Armistice Day (called Rememberance day after World War Two). The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers - but a challenge to the continuing drive to war. I prefer these associations considerably more than those of the standard red poppies. 

My grandfather refused to be involved in war for reasons of peace, but on the other side of my family the brute force of conflict is to be seen up a few generations from me. There's a family photo of my great Auntie Jean with her husband (I hope I recall correctly) among others. When my brother saw it for the first time, he asked, as children do, what was wrong with his face. As an RAF pilot he had been involved in a plane crash, consequently facing around a hundred plastic surgery operations. I can't imagine the situations he went through, nor his family, and I wish that I had been able to meet him. 

Today I haven't worn a poppy. I've sat in loungewear working and reading, and I haven't left the house except to go to the shop opposite. However, that by no means implies that I don't remember those who died in war. That applies to those still dying today too. I not only mourn the loss of our present soldiers, but pity their choice to go to war, and the fact that the opportunity was there. I also remember those on the so-called "enemy" side who have died innocently. 

I don't think that poppies shouldn't be worn, but I certainly hope that their associations and messages will change. People shouldn't be abused if they don't wear poppies either, as long as they have their own way of remembering the dead. Rather than "never forget", which the majority of us will not, the message held in poppies should be "never again". I wish love to all those who lost relatives in war and are remembering them today.