Friday, 31 August 2012

My August Challenge Accomplishments

The month is coming to a close, and therefore my August Challenge is too. A lot has happened in the past thirty-one days, and I'd like to write a quick post on what I've accomplished.

Why did I undergo this challenge?
I've suffered from both general and social anxiety for a long time, and I tend to become quite agoraphobic if I have the chance. I didn't want these issues to escalate before I return to university mid-September, and so I thought it would be beneficial to expose myself to my fears as much as possible now. I'm a great believer in exposure therapy, despite how much it scares me!

What have I achieved?
I've done a lot. I could have done more anxiety-inducing tasks, but that may have had a negative rather than positive effect. Listed below are the fears I mentioned in my introduction to the challenge, alongside what I've done to face each one:

  • Speaking in front of people, particularly being the centre of attention: One of the many benefits of starting my new bookshop job is that I've learned not to shy away from talking to people. I've also practiced this by chatting to family friends, for instance at my brother's athletics competitions and family barbecues. 
  • Asking questions - in shops, about other people, for directions: Thinking about it, I have done this a lot more than usual. At work I've asked people about themselves, which I never did before, and I've spoken up to order in restaurants and cafés (instead of someone else doing it for me). Asking for directions is yet to happen, however. 
  • Phone calls: I've taken and made so many phone calls this month, something I certainly wouldn't have predicted beforehand. I've rang customers at work, and had various phone conversations regarding therapy (one of which was a telephone appointment, a prospect that has always terrified me). I still don't pick up the home phone, unless I know that it's a family member (they leave a message shouting at me to answer until I do). Perhaps I can challenge myself to answer that phone, even if it the call will never be for me!
  • Being criticised or judged: Doing Live Mocha speaking exercises to help my Spanish has allowed me to face criticism. I'm viewing feedback positively, as something that can help me improve and develop. Hopefully I'll be able to continue this at university, and not be afraid to participate for fear of failure or embarrassment.
  • Being assertive: At work yesterday, a colleague asked me if I'd prefer the fan to be on or off. I replied that I didn't mind, which has always been my answer for everything. She told me I had to choose one or the other, and I made up my mind. For once I was assertive! I had a laugh about my lack of assertiveness with the woman in question, and she confessed that she was the same, yet underneath I was proud of this small accomplishment. 
  • Crowds and busy places: My boyfriend and I had a day trip to London, during which I wasn't too bothered about the crowds we faced. I even used a lift, which I usually never fail to avoid due to my slight claustrophobia. 
  • Water: Unfortunately I haven't faced this fear. When I was younger I saw my sister very close to drowning, and it's always made me quite wary of swimming and boats. Despite not addressing this in my challenge, I definitely will in September. I'm holidaying in Italy, which I'm sure will mean that facing swimming and water becomes inevitable.
  • Horrid animals with horrible tails: Mice and rats - there, now I can manage to say (well, write) their names. I dealt with one being caught in a mousetrap just behind the wall where I was sitting, although I did not see the poor mouse as I ran off screaming. I also didn't retaliate as I usually do to Scabbers whilst watching Harry Potter

Will I continue to face my fears?
I certainly will. I find that the only way I can overcome my fears is to address them face-on. What I fear is also never as bad as I believe. I'm going to continue challenging my social and general anxieties, as well as my more specific phobias. If every three months are as fruitful as this month, I'll be sure to be fearless in no time.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

NZT and Self-Improvement: What would you do if you had the Limitless pill?

Limitless is one of my favourite films. It's the story of Eddie Morra, a writer played by Bradley Cooper, who begins taking a pill that allows him to access his whole brain, rather than a mere 20%. As a result, he writes the book he's been unable to produce for so long, learns multiple languages, and enters the financial market. These gains are accompanied by beautiful women, rich friends, and Maseratis. Not bad.

I love the concept of being able to stretch yourself to do what you always wanted to do. Who doesn't wish to become a well-rounded, interesting person? I was thinking today about what I would do if I had the NZT pill, and came up with the following list:

  • Improve my Catalan and Italian
  • Read more non-fiction
  • Have super-confidence
  • Write inspiring blog posts
  • Be obsessed with learning
  • Be more musical
  • Name classical music easily
  • Read all of Tolstoy's work
  • Improve my social skills
  • Get a first class degree
  • Learn to dance well
  • Draw and paint well
  • Perfect my English grammar

Yet I can do all of the above without any need for a pill. Limitless shows how grim the side effects of such medication can be. I'm going to work on the list I've just constructed, and prove to myself that its contents can be accomplished. I can spend twenty minutes working on languages per day, practise drawing when the urge strikes, and build on my confidence. Everyone wants to become better at languages or be more intellectual, but they often don't realise how the only obstacles in their way are self-doubt and a lack of willpower. 

Consider what you'd like to achieve in an ideal world, and then ask yourself if it's really as impossible as you presume. 


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Books I Couldn't Finish: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tender is the Night & More

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway:
a book I couldn't finish!

I love to read, as shown by my blog. However, occasionally there's the odd book that never obtains my complete interest and remains unfinished. Often these aren't particularly celebrated books, but other times they are texts which I held high expectations of. I hope that many of those who read this dispute my opinions on the following texts:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway - Perhaps if I didn't study examples of bad translations at university, I would like the way this book was written. Whilst reading it, I was constantly preoccupied by better ways to express passages. That didn't make for an enjoyable reading experience at all. 
  • Dissolution - Matthew Shardlake - I was given this book by a friend of my Dad's. Whilst I didn't hate it, it just wasn't really my type of novel. 
  • The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov - I really wanted to love this book, and I'm still determined to give it another go. I was drawn in by the opening, but lost interest about halfway through the novel. I think this was partly due to how I didn't give complete attention to the novel, and read with distractions around me. Therefore I got confused at crucial passages, and couldn't follow the plot fully. 
  • Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald - It was unusual for me not to like this novel, as I usually enjoy F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing so much. Perhaps I was too young when I read the book to appreciate it. I would like to try reading it again one day. 
  • Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe - This seemed interesting, and I liked the setting. Nonetheless, I wasn't completely absorbed by the plot. 
  • The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories - Angela Carter - I found these stories very brutal, although that's exactly the point of the text. Perhaps I'm just too delicate to read Carter's writing. 
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer - For some reason that I cannot remember, I gave up on this book in the opening pages. 
  • Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - I didn't think too highly of the plot. I've heard good things about his other novels, such as The Remains of the Day, so perhaps I'll enjoy those more. 
  • Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell - I've had so much trouble with this novel. Some parts I enjoyed, but others I found painfully long (and dare I say it, slightly boring). In the end I skimmed through the remaining one hundred pages and decided to call it a day. 

I'm afraid this list was quite negative, but it's given me the opportunity to consider which of the aforementioned books I should forgive and start over. Also, part of the excitement of reading is the difference of opinion between one person and the next. Whilst I'm sure that I'll read many more incredible books, there will inevitably be those that get neglected on my bookshelf.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Thoughts on In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka

We sell a few of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics at work - they're lovely slim short stories that cost a mere £3.00. This Franz Kafka edition, containing In the Penal Colony and The Judgement, only amounts to eighty pages. Therefore I could easily read it during a work shift. As the story is so short, there will be spoilers in this review!

I haven't read anything by Kafka before, although he's an author that I always thought I'd like. I certainly enjoyed reading this, but these two short stories were disturbing, to say the least. The first, In the Penal Colony, tells of a traveller shown the elaborate workings of a brutal machine. The officer who has devoted years of his life to the machine explains to the traveller, in greatest detail, how the sentence of the condemned is carved onto their skin by the contraption. Then, the condemned man is effectively left to die over the course of twelve hours. However, before that happens, a kind of realisation is discernable in the face of the sufferer:
[The officer:] "How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of that sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last, and fading so quickly!"
Why can't the torture stop there if the prisoner is aware of his crime? Also, what exactly is the "transfiguration" mentioned? Rather than a realisation of the condemned man's (supposed) crime, it seems to me more an understanding of the sanctity of life in those last precious moments.

One of the most brutal aspects of the story is the complete lack of justice. The condemned have no awareness of their crime, and receive no trial. Despite language being inscribed on the body, there is no real communication between prisoner and the law. Arguably, justice is received by the officer at the end of the story, when he ironically faces the wrath of the machine he's tended for so long. Yet as the condemned man shows no sign of humanity towards the officer who had earlier saved him from the machine, is the prisoner as morally wrong as the officer? He is left to die a violent death that's gruesome to bear witness to, despite his prior cruelty to others.

There is such a sheer amount of pain entailed in this execution method. It reminded me slightly of the Mongolian torture by skinning mentioned in Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. They both result in slow, incredibly painful and drawn-out deaths: what I'd certainly presume to be the worst kind. I half expected the traveller to be exposed to the machine himself, but I like that Kafka doesn't write in such an obvious way. It's quite worrying to think what could have influenced Kafka to write such a narrative, or if it is based on anything. The penal colony is akin to hell on earth and heavily stuck in the past, and it's inhabitants are all too keen to escape:
They could have jumped into the boat, but the explorer lifted a heavy knotted rope from the floor boards, threatened them with it, and so kept them from attempting the leap.
I found that passage quite sad, really. It's a very effectively written ending.

There are three works by Kafka included in my 100 Classics Challenge, and I look forward to returning to his work.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Film Review: The Way

I saw this film listed on Netflix a few weeks ago, and thought it would be worth watching at some point. However, I thought it might be slightly boring for my boyfriend to watch - it's the story of a father who decides to travel "El camino de Santiago" after his estranged son dies on the pilgrimage. We decided to watch it this week, and were pleasantly surprised.

It was one of those productions that elevates you to a heightened level of human experience; to that "lightness of being" that Tolstoy and Milan Kundera mention. It's also surprisingly calming to watch people walk. There's a lot of good acting involved, with Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt starring. I only just realised that Emilio Estevez, who plays Daniel, is Martin Sheen's son - and therefore Charlie Sheen's brother - both on and off the production of this film. If that makes sense. Our favourite character was Joost, the Dutchman, played by Yorick van Wageningen. He's very charismatic and friendly in this role, unlike when he played Nils Bjurman in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Putting one foot in from of the other is very meditative. The contact between your feet and the earth, over and over, forms a connection or energy of sorts. Add a beautiful view to this and your mind and soul will soon feel refreshed. Walking is so simple, and simple is how it should be. You put one foot in front of the other, and prevent the experience from being blemished by anxiety, preoccupations or intention. You just walk.

Perhaps one day I'll do the same pilgrimage, or part of it. I remember it was something that my school Spanish teacher wanted to do - I wonder if she has yet. I know that she's given up teaching to go and live in Spain, which I'm happy she's done. Teaching kids in my school was a nightmare, and so perhaps she's in need of a pilgrimage.

Currently Reading and Recently Read: Walden, 1Q84, Pursuit of Italy

Life in southern England is always changing at present. Earlier in the week I was reading on the garden bench with frequent suncream applications, but in the last fifteen hours it hasn't stopped raining. My family had a barbecue planned for today, but I'm not sure how certain that is of happening. I feel quite sorry for my Dad: he's been trying all week to make the garden grass perfect for kids to play football on. Everything he organises guarantees rain it seems, and he feels that everything is against him currently. Perhaps I need to lend him Aurelius's Meditations.

My reading has also been a bit choppy recently: I've been reading too many books at once, and none that particularly draw me in. However, I began Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 yesterday, and it's made reading relaxing again. Not a great amount has happened in it yet, but I'm already gripped; as happens so often with Murakami novels. I'm not quite convinced why most his female protagonists wear mini-skirts, but I won't question it too much - he's a great writer. Strong females and weaker males seem common in his writing, even if female strength is often defined by sexuality.

I started Walden by Henry David Thoreau last week and finished it yesterday. I liked the beginning of this book, but after a while I found it slightly dull. I'm sure many will disagree. The concepts behind Walden really appealed to me - living simply alongside nature, enjoying solitude, and having time to think. These are all ideas that I'd like to follow more myself. However, it's written so precisely - whilst I like knowing what books he read, knowing how much he earned by growing beans, and the details of their growing conditions, didn't interest me much. I admit that after reading to page 100, I did skim-read and skip sections until the end. Despite this, I'll definitely return to some of the opening passages.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
I've also been reading The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour, a non-fiction title. I began reading the book chronologically, but I found it a bit too in-depth. Perhaps I'm just not in the mood for heavier reading currently. Instead, I gained a lot by skipping between parts and using the index to find sections that would interest me. That worked much better. I learned a lot of interest through reading this, and it's nice preparation for my upcoming visit to Italy.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Books Worth Re-reading & Why We Should Re-Read Favourite Novels

Books and the power of re-reading
I read an article on The Guardian website today which claims that "anyone who talks about re-reading a book is arrogant, narrow-minded or dim." The author goes on to add that people only re-read in order to show off. I don't agree with him.

I only read very special books more than once, unless they're university course books that I have to sweat over. Generally, I find that there are so many other books ready for me to explore instead of re-reading. The books that I do re-read are often those that I simply enjoyed more than others. Alternatively, there are those that I feel I have more to learn from, or those that I need to return to in order to fully understand. For instance, my re-reading of War and Peace not long ago: how can you expect to take in all of this mammoth book in a single reading?

Books that I've enjoyed and read again include The Waves by Virginia Woolf and Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Berniéres - I felt that both were beautifully written. I also gained more from Love in The Time of Cholera by García Márquez and The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende by reading them a second time. It wouldn't surprise me if I return to the aforementioned texts at least another time. Other people may well hate those books, but for me there's something in the writing that greatly appeals to me.

Below is a list of some books that I plan to read again, for the reasons I explored in the first paragraph. Perhaps I'll read some of them this summer, but I'm not going to place a time frame on it. I've found it very useful to keep lists such as this on my blog for future reference - is that a selfish reason for blogging? I do hope that such posts get others thinking about their own literary collections - about both what they have read and what they'd like to read.

Che's Poetry (4) I Don't Know Why You Think - Nicolás Guillén

Today's poem is No Sé Por Qué Piensas Tú by Nicolás Guillén, a Cuban poet I gave brief information about in a post on another poem of his, The Grandfather. When I'm translating a poem from Che Guevara's collection (El Cuaderno verde), it always interests me to think about why he chose it. This one makes more sense than others: it covers unity, alienation, and equality, for instance. I think that it would console me too in the Bolivian jungle.

I Don't Know Why You Think

I don't know why you think,
soldier, that I hate you,
if we are the same thing,

You are poor, so am I;
I'm from below, so are you;
where have you got it from,
soldier, that I hate you?

It hurts me that sometimes
you forget who I am;
heck, if I am you,
it's the same that you are me.

But not for that reason I
have to dislike you;
if we are the same thing,
I don't know why you think,
soldier, that I hate you.

Soon we'll see ourselves, me and you,
together on the same street,
shoulder to shoulder, you and I,
with hate from neither me nor you.
but knowing you and me,
where we go, you and I...
I don't know why you think,
solider, that I hate you!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Poem Worthy of Our Attention: "Brief Thoughts on Maps" by Miroslav Holub

The Alps, not the Pyrenees. Image source

The poem below was mentioned in the book I posted about earlier, The Idle Traveller by Dan Kieran. I love poems that inspire me, or cause me to smile unexpectedly, and this poem certainly delivers. I'd like to find more of Holub's work. His poems - originally written in Czech - were often influenced by his work as an immunologist; certainly interesting to consider.

Brief Thoughts on Maps

"The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
snowed for two days and the unit
did not return.
The lieutenant suffered:
he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees"

Miroslav Holub. TLS, Feb 4, '77

A Review of The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel by Dan Kieran

The Idle Traveller by Dan Kieran
A lovely cover of The Idle Traveller
Work was quiet yesterday, and so I decided - as I was in a bookshop after all - to read. I'd been eyeing up "The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel" by Dan Kieran for a while now; largely because of its artistic cover, I admit. I finished it during my shift (yes, it was that quiet), and it provided me with plenty to think about. Whilst skimming through Amazon reviews, I noticed the remarkable amount of people who also read this in one sitting - is this contradictory to the concept of slow living?

This living and travelling "slowly" is what Dan Kieran advocates. When he has to, or chooses to, go somewhere, Dan favours night trains, buses, boats, and walking instead of travelling by aeroplane and the Underground. Why would he want to add so much time to his journeys? The author treats travel akin to a pilgrimage: something to enjoy, savour, and take time over. This means that he can look out the windows and truly take in scenery, rather than whizzing over it at 30,000 feet. It also takes the stress out of travel for him, although I'm not sure if having so many connections would do the same for me.

Key concepts of "idle travelling":

  • Instead of feeling obliged to sightsee, simply explore and see what you come across
  • Don't bring all your worldly goods: you won't need them
  • Speak to locals to find the best places to visit, alongside specific knowledge of the area
  • Always keep a travel journal
  • Read books that correlate with your destination, rather than guide books. An obvious example would be Dubliners (James Joyce) in Dublin, but it could be any biography, novel or non-fiction (etc).
  • Things will go wrong, so don't be anxious in advance or stressed when it happens

Yet it's not entirely about travel, this book. Kieran refers to the Isaac family - Rupert Isaac, the father, having written a book called "The Horse Boy". The "horse boy" is his son, Rowan, who suffers from what is thought to be autism. In particular, he struggles with a "sensory overload we can barely imagine", although in part I can empathise with this problem. I am known to get incredibly frustrated over noises, smells, and surroundings, and often lie in a dark room with earplugs in. Rowan is initially "treated" with lots of pills and a sugary diet, and unsurprisingly this did little to help him. The only benefits arose when Rowan spent time running around outdoors in the wood behind his home.

His father - an experienced horseman - had previously kept him away from neighbouring horses, but on one occasion Rowan ran into a horse field and lay down in front of the alpha mare. He wasn't trampled by the horse, don't worry. In fact, the horse acted in a way Rupert Isaac had never seen before: she stood still momentarily, then "dipped her head to Rowan's soft, writhing form and mouthed with her lips. The sign of equine submission". The subject of the book is the family's journey to Mongolia, participating in Shamanic healing and then riding on horseback across the country. Dan Kieran makes it seem worth the read.

The Isaac's is quite an extreme example, but by broadening our minds to travel and new experiences, we access different parts of our brain, which may in part have helped Rowan's autism so much. Another case explained is that of Jay Griffith's, the writer of "Wild", a sufferer of depression who travels to the uncivilised corners of the world in search of mental clarity. She writes that, "the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it."

Dan Kieran explains how Griffith attains this wildness "not through self-destructive behaviour, but by seeking knowledge outside her own experience". And yes, her depression is helped as a result. Could I help my anxiety and get over my past in a similar way, perhaps?

Monday, 20 August 2012

Will Smith's Inspirational Quote on Running and Reading

Will Smith on running and reading as the keys to life
Will Smith on running and reading. Image from Film School Rejects.

Will Smith is a pretty inspirational man. When he was thirteen, his father asked him and his younger brother to knock down a brick wall. When they had done this, he asked them to rebuild it. They replied that this was impossible, but a year and a half later, they had succeeded. Perhaps his willpower is a reason for his present success: as of 2011, his films have grossed $5.7 billion in global box office, and he received Best Actor Oscar nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness.

But anyway, this post is to focus on the following quote about running and reading of his:

“The keys to life are running and reading. When you're running, there's a little person that talks to you and says, "Oh I'm tired. My lung's about to pop. I'm so hurt. There's no way I can possibly continue." You want to quit. If you learn how to defeat that person when you're running, you will know to not quit when things get hard in your life. For reading: there have been gazillions of people that have lived before all of us. There's no new problem you could have--with your parents, with school, with a bully. There's no new problem that someone hasn't already had and written about it in a book.”
There's a lot to think about in that passage, and a lot that I relate to. I'd love to start running again. When I was younger, I'd often run several times a day. I realise now that this can't have been good for my growing joints, and it's probably a reason why I have trouble with them now. Regardless, running was a way to challenge myself whilst getting away from my problems at home. I'd run down the steep hill of my drive, past fields and houses, and then run all the way back up. All before heading off to school at 8.30.

When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome. This explained what I thought were "growing pains" and why I got so exhausted. Of course, the physio told me that running would have to be off the menu, alongside anything that aggravated my joints too much.

I'm tempted to try strengthening my muscles more, and then try running again. I just know how painful it could potentially be. If I can't do it, I won't let it get me down. I can go on walks instead to enjoy exercising outdoors, and I find pilates beneficial. To learn how to persevere and not quit when things get difficult, I expose myself to the things I fear most. By pushing yourself through fear, like running through self-doubt, you realise that you can succeed.

Reading, unlike running, will always be available to me. Will Smith's view of reading matches the essence of my blog: finding your current problem or situation in a book, and learning where to go next. Odysseus had the courage to persevere and find his way home, undeterred by all the setbacks in his way. Can my journey through anxiety really be as hard as that? Alba from Isabel Allende's The House of The Spirits survives being imprisoned, raped, and beaten by "writing a testimony in her head" to distance her mind from reality. If she can get through that, there's no doubt that I can persevere.

Everybody can find ways to strengthen and challenge themselves, even if not by running. There's also little that you can't find in a book.

Friday, 17 August 2012

35 Ways to Make the Most of a Summer

In England, summer has gone before you've even realised it's arrived. Before long it's back to the seemingly perpetual drizzle and winter coats weather. However, today the sun is shining! Instead of moaning about it like I usually do (I'm ginger, what can I say?), I'm going to focus on making the most of the summer and our current good weather.

Here are some of my ideas:

  • Rise early - 5-7 am is such a lovely time of day during summer
  • Notice all that's beautiful around you
  • Stock up on all you need for Pimms: lemonade, pimms, mint, apple, strawberries, orange (or whatever your preferences are)
  • See the sun rise and set on a single day
  • Have a holiday or retreat at home
  • Notice when life improves
  • Don't make excuses to worry or criticise
  • Find a local wood or area of nature
  • Fill your freezer with ice creams
  • Reflect on what you're grateful for
  • Stretch
  • Write down the story of your life so far, or that of your parents or grandparents
  • Meditate
  • Let go of emotional pain
  • Daydream
  • Beautify your feet: exfoliate, moisturise, trim toenails then paint them
  • Find silence outdoors
  • Write letters
  • Don't forget the suncream
  • Memorise a poem
  • Barbecue
  • Pay attention to the stars
  • Visit a library for garden reading material
  • Care for yourself as you would a friend
  • Live slower
  • Get a language learning book
  • Journal
  • Get your pasty legs out
  • Care for plants
  • Invite family and friends over
  • Think of three goals for the next day, week, month, year, and ten years
  • Nap
  • Eat all of your meals outside
  • Make your own ice lollies
  • Drive to the beach

Summer afternoon...Summer afternoon... the two most beautiful words in the English language. - Henry James

August Challenge - Halfway through!


Near the top of my blog, there's a link to my "August Challenge" (or you can just click here). This is a project to do one thing every day in August that scares me, to help relieve both my anxiety and my smaller fears. It's going really well actually, and I've seen improvements in my foreign language confidence and agoraphobia, amongst other things.

For the remainder of the month, I'd like to focus on the following fears of mine:
  • Asking questions - in shops, about other people, for directions
  • Being assertive
  • Water

When I go shopping this weekend, I can work on asking questions. This fear is related to how I dislike attention being on me; I've always liked blending into crowds and groups. This will similarly help me become more assertive, amongst not saying "yes" when I mean "no, and not letting people push me around. 

My dislike of water stems from a childhood experience, which I'll be sure to write about soon. I'm going to aim high and try to go swimming before the end of the month - it will also challenge bikini fear!

If you're reading this, think about what you generally avoid that scares you must. Can you realistically challenge yourself to confront this fear, if only in a simple, low-anxiety inducing way? I'm sure that it will be beneficial. 
"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. - Goethe

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Thoughts on A Life with Books by Julian Barnes

When A Life With Books by Julian Barnes came into stock at work, the boss exclaimed how it must be the tiniest book we sell. At a mere twenty-six pages, I think I'd have to agree with him. It looks more like a leaflet, to be honest.

During a quiet moment free from customers I began flicking through it, and actually enjoyed what I was reading. However, due to its size - I feel like I'm being extremely discriminatory - it was very hard to read without bending the cover back slightly. Therefore, I decided taking ownership of it would be the best option. It was, overall, only £1.99.

You probably know Julian Barnes from his The Sense of an Ending fame. A Life with Books is essentially his defence of the paperback novel, in all its tactile glory. Barnes writes,
"Every book feels and looks different in your hands; every Kindle download feels and looks exactly the same."
He's right, of course. I love my Kindle: I use it to buy crappy paperbacks that I'd rather not have cluttering my bookshelf, and it's handy for travel. The sample before you buy system is also incredibly useful and cost-efficient. However, for novels that I know I'll enjoy, or ones with exceptionally lovely covers, I feel that they have to be added to my bookshelves.

Regarding the future of the paperback novel, Barnes states that books must become more desirable in order to survive modernity. We must be drawn to their covers, the way they feel in our hands. And how they smell, of course. Yet there is the risk, as Barnes mentions, that the Kindle will begin emitting subtle scents appropriate to each book. Would that be taking it too far? Barnes also defends the local and independent bookshop, a sentiment I must now echo after beginning work at my own local bookseller.

Barnes is a book-lover, that's for sure. He asserts that "reading and life and not separate but symbiotic", which I think is very aptly put. Moreover, he puts an interesting spin on the belief that books are made for escapism with this statement:
"When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it."
I do agree: all of my favourite pieces of fiction show life in all its intricacies and trivialities, re-creating and celebrating the true essence of living. Nonetheless, in reading I will always enjoy the escape from my own life and into another, more exciting one. Is that really so bad?

Which books would you take to a desert island?

A photo from my trip to Malawi in 2009
I always have been, and always will be, surrounded by books. There's a photo of a much younger me face down asleep on the floor of my bedroom, books scattered everywhere around me. I was also completely naked. Nowadays, I tend to read while dressed, and my reading collection is considerably more organised.

So, the old and rather overused desert island question. I haven't quite decided how many books you're allowed to take to the middle of the sea with you, but I'll say that five is my allocated amount. If I had it my way, the island would have an underground library, or I'd somehow hijack a neighbouring island for storage purposes.

First on the list would be a piece of philosophy that I always seem to write about, I'm afraid. I do find it superior to any other philosophical text, however (strong words!) The text in question is Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, a piece of stoicism that I first heard about in Jules Evans's Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations. Evans tells of how a soldier he researched took only this book with him into the armed forces, as it carried all the guidance and consolation he needed. Like my copy, his was covered with underlines and annotations. When I get my copy of Philosophy for Life back from my mother, I'll quote the section I mean in a post. On the confines of my hypothetical island, I'd refer to the mighty Aurelius to help me get out of bed on lazy mornings (or whatever you sleep on on an island). He's a philosopher that helps you lose all negativity towards both situations and others.

Next would be The Odyssey. I admit, it's a very obvious choice. But if you ignore the threat of being stuck in the middle of the sea, and perhaps unable to ever return home, imagine how perfect reading The Odyssey would be on an island! Although, perhaps the plot would ring home a bit too true...

Clearly I'd have to bring something by Tolstoy. I'm going to avoid being predictable by saying War and Peace, and instead choose Tolstoy's short stories - they're just as encompassing of human life, which is what I look for in a good book. The Forged Coupon teaches of the butterfly effect, of how every good or bad act you commit reverberates through humankind with similarly positive or negative repercussions. Then there's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy's iconic exploration of death. I'm sure that I could read it many times over.

I'd like to add The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to my brief list, as it would hopefully prevent me becoming malevolent and bad-hearted. No one wants an evil female island dweller.

My fifth choice is likely to be Ganarás La Luz by León Felipe. Having this would enable me to retain my knowledge of Spanish, although I'm unsure how useful that would be. It's a fantastic poetry collection regardless, with all its intertextuality, politics, and beauty of language. I've posted a lot of my translations from it on this blog.

There are my five choices. This hypothetical list will undoubtedly change with time, but I'm sure that these choices will still remain firm favourites. I keep my few most valued books on the left of my windowsill, all piled up. If I find myself suddenly summoned to a desert island, I'll be prepared!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Bibliotherapy and Nina Sankovitch's "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair"

Bibliotherapy for loss in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

I've been trying to get hold of this book for so long. Whilst my blog narrates my journey away from anxiety through hefty reading, Nina Sankovitch's Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading shows the "all-encompassing power and delight of reading". Therefore, it seemed destined for me to read this book. The author and I both have a soft spot for Tolstoy too. In the end, I ordered it from the bookshop I work at (the sensible thing to do), and collected it on my shift two days later.

I can't think of a non-fiction book that's more "typically me": it narrates Nina Sankovitch's search for recuperation and guidance through books, following her sister's death. The author doesn't just read the odd book, she goes rather wild and reads one a day for a year. When I told my boyfriend about this book, he said that it sounded a bit depressing. I hadn't thought about this, but truth be told, it wasn't gloomy at all. Yes, the book was derived from emotional circumstances, but it was compiled to hold inspiration and hope; for both author and reader.

One of the novel's epigraphs resounded particularly with me:
"A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors." Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit
Like Sankovitch and Henry Ward Beecher, I treat books as my "multitude of counsellors". In fact, I've been wondering whether to resume therapy or not upon going back to university. Yes, I probably need more professional help for various issues, particularly as my anxiety and agoraphobic tendencies worsen when I'm at university. But can I help myself as much with good books, alternative therapies and relaxation? Medication is a no-go option for me, that's for sure.

Sankovitch uses literature to create her personal sanatorium. Sanatorium: I love that word (minus all associations of illness). It connotes a place of blue skies, nature and pure air in my mind. My personal sanatorium would, of course, be half-library, allowing me to read and reflect upon Wordsworth's spring scenes, García Márquez's descriptions of relationships, and all you can learn from my favourite multitude of Russians. Dostoevsky doesn't correlate too finely with my image of a sanatorium, however.

The literary haven that the author describes contains favourite books of mine: Tolstoy's The Forged Coupon and Dickens's Christmas short stories, for instance. Yet there's also those alien to my reading history. I'd like to read Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, as I would sympathise with the protagonist who "wants to be left in peace to secretly enjoy the pleasure and comfort that books, music, art, and good food bring her". I'd like to read Saramago's Death With Interruptions because I so enjoyed Blindness.

Sankovitch's literary hiatus directs her towards kindness after reading Plato, and she receives added faith in life after reading Julian Barnes's assurance that there is always the "promise of a new novel or a new friend". A Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard gets her sex life back on track. Sankovitch even mentions having a curry with an ex-Spanish lover of hers in Tunbridge Wells, my nearest town, and so I appreciate her even more highly now.

I'll be delving back into this lovely volume of literary esteem again soon, I'm certain. Nina has a blog, appropriately named Read All Day, but I heavily recommend buying her book. It's the perfect way to get your own literary odyssey under way.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A Review of 11.22.63 by Stephen King

I have mixed feelings about Stephen King's 11.22.63. It's a "what if?" novel - what if JFK was never assassinated, in this case. This is a fascinating idea for a novel, so kudos to King for that.

Here's the blurb of the novel:

"King takes his protagonist Jake Epping, a high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, 2011, on a fascinating journey back to 1958 - from a world of mobile phones and iPods to a new world of Elvis and JFK, of Plymouth Fury cars and Lindy Hopping, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake's life - a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time."

Would you actually want to change the negative events that have happened to you? Everything that we have ever experienced, from the smallest to the largest event, has shaped our present in subtle ways. There are things from my past that I would rather had not happened, but I'm happy with who I am now. I'm happy and healthy. Attempting to change the past seems too much like playing God to me. 

On that point, the rough-looking "Card Man" (of various colours) reminds me of the tramp always seen holding signs with guidance on in Bruce Almighty. In this film, the tramp turns out to be God, and in 11.22.63, the Card Man/wino is the all-knowing man of conscience and guidance. Appearance isn't always as it seems.

Also, meddling with the past doesn't appear at all advantageous to our characters. *SPOILERS FROM NOW ON!* Al's life ends through intentional overdose rather than his health problems, and the first Card Man's throat is fatally cut. The card itself is a representation of mental degradation bridging from alterations to the past. If everyone meddled with the past, is the Card Man right in saying that reality would fail to exist? It's mind-boggling stuff. 

There is a provoking suggestion by the narrator that you cannot help but consider after reading 11.22.63: were 9/11 and the Boxing Day tsunami caused by disturbances to the time continuum? Perhaps that's too much to think about on a sunny Tuesday evening. Also, how can we be sure that Lee Harvey Oswald didn't travel back in time through the "rabbit hole"? Perhaps he actually had a heart - yes, it seems unlikely - and was on a mission akin to Jake Epping's, having to assassinate JFK for the sake of humankind. 

The dystopian, quasi-apocalyptic present that Jake returns to makes this possibility plausible, and JFK's assassination appear somehow necessary. Because JFK was never assassinated, LBJ never became president, and therefore there was no civil rights movement, resulting in race riots. The world described is practically hell on earth - there's violence, hate, and destruction on all sides. Did Stephen King come to such a description in order to make us appreciate our current world more? Compared with his written alternative, the modern world appears almost utopian. 

The end was a bit Murakami-esque (e.g. I had no idea what the correct interpretation was). Does Jake stay in the past with Sadie, or does he just enjoy that one dance, for old times sake? The fact that she remembers Jake creates a whole lot more for the reader to think about. It's also a reason to re-consider your own recent deja-vu moments! 

I said at the start of this post that I have mixed feelings about this novel. The main issue I have is that Sadie's crazy ex (the guy with the broom) has OCD, and it seems implied that this is the reason for his insane actions. Not that he's a psychopath, perhaps? But on the whole, if you want a book to make you question what you presumed to be secure knowledge and consider the possibility of the impossible, I hope you'll enjoy this. Also, history nerds look no further!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Poetry by León Felipe: Dialogue Between the Poet and Death (Diálogo entre el poeta y la muerte)

Thanatos - daemon personification of death in 
Greek  Mythology. Sculptured marble column
 drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. 

Here's another León Felipe poem from his collection Ganarás La Luz. Look out for notes of John Donne's "Death be not proud".


Poet- Oh, death! I know you’re already there. Please have some patience.

Death- It’s three o’clock. Shall we leave when the stars fade, the roosters crow, the first light sounds its trumpet from the mountain range and the sun opens a crimson crack between heaven and earth?

Poet- Not when you say so, nor when I want to.

I’ve come to write my testimony. When I have written my last blasphemy my pen will fall, my inkwell will break without being touched, causing ink will pour and, without you pushing it,
The door will open wide.
Then we will leave. Meanwhile...
hang your scythe with my walking stick on the coat rack
in the aisle and sit down... sit down and wait!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Philosophy Snippet: Pythagoras

"Learn to be silent, let your quiet mind listen and absorb." Pythagoras
Peace and quiet are right up there with my basic human needs. When I become too stressed, I can't settle down completely until I have a dark, silent toom to rest in. However, I do find it hard to focus entirely on silence at other times. For me, meditation does the opposite of its intended purpose: focusing on my body and a relaxed state makes me tense and edgy. Therefore, I prefer to "let my quiet mind listen" whilst I read in complete silence, or perhaps whist writing or stretching. That's a quiet enough mind for me.

Perhaps I'll learn to relax more completely with time and practice, but for now I'm happy with my way of resting. It achieves the goal of clearing my mind of negativity and irrelevant thoughts. Whatever works to quiet your mind, be sure to schedule it!

Thoughts on Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Image from
I read Murakami's work far too quickly; his writing has a really fresh, contemporary feel to it that's so different to any other fiction.

I was talking to my boss at work about Murakami, and he said how his favourite novel by him was Sputnik Sweetheart. I had not read it, and so I quickly got hold of it to change this.

It's a reasonably short text at 229 pages, and it is quickly read. My edition (the Vintage one you tend to see in bookshops, shown on the right) has a semi-nude lady on the front, which made me wonder what territory I was getting into.

It's just the ordinary Murakami level of sex, really, and no Fifty Shades.

Here's the blurb, for interested readers:

Sumire is in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. But whereas Miu is glamorous and successful, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel. Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire, and should she ever tell Miu how she feels for her? Meanwhile K wonders whether he should confess his own unrequited love for Sumire. Then, a desperate Miu calls from a small Greek island: Sumire has mysteriously vanished...

Murakami has a habit of recycling themes and symbols throughout his novels. This is to no ill effect; in fact, it helps to make his work truly his. For example, there's his symbolic use of cats, telephones, and disappearances in Sputnik Sweetheart. K also questions more than once if Sumire could be down a well. Please say she isn't, I was thinking. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle instilled in me a perpetual fear of wells.

I found it quite unusual for half of a Murakami novel to take place in Greece. Distance is a common theme in his work, but I didn't think that he took his writing out of Japan much (correct me if I'm wrong). This choice of location has interesting implications: through Sumire travelling to Greece, is it suggested that she has lost her true, Japanese identity? Is Greece chosen because of links to The Odyssey? Homer's work is mentioned in the last few pages of the novel, and the two plots certainly intertwine. It is narrated:

'"Hey, I'm back," said Sumire. Very casual. Very real. "It wasn't easy, but somehow I managed it. Like a 50-word précis of Homer's Odyssey."'

Is she really back? The plot centres on moving away from the homeland - Japan -  and none of the characters truly come back as they were before, or whole. After returning from Greece, K is able to empathise with Carrot (no, he's not ginger) and break off the affair with Carrot's mother (something he appeared unable to do before). Sumire seems trapped in a world that K can only access through his dreams, among many other interpretations. Why the blood reference at the end? For some reason, I immediately wondered if K was the person Miu saw in her apartment from the ferris wheel. That doesn't really make sense, but it's what came to mind! Murakami's work certainly isn't intended to have one perfect interpretation; I'm unsure if the author has even made up his own mind on certain points.

What is certain, however, is that his characters are easily relatable to many. Frequently they're the introverted type who spend their time in the worlds of fiction and classical music - this certainly rings a bell! His characters also undergo journeys to discover and assert their identity, which makes me question my own progression and self-development, whether through experience, the books I read, or the people I meet.

In this individual novel, I found that I could relate to Miu best. On the surface, Miu appears perfect: she has a good job, good tastes, she speaks several languages. Yet she's undergone trauma that breaks her identity, effectively. Despite this, her issues from the past doesn't seem to shape her life. Miu does appear lost, as K observes when he sees her driving towards the novel's end, but she doesn't let that mean her life is over. I do not appear perfect like Miu does by any means, but I do try to disguise problems. I'm still unsure as to whether this stoicism is beneficial, or if I should open up my emotions and past experiences more. I expect that this question will be left undecided for me in the foreseeable future, but perhaps reading the remainder of Murakami's repertoire will help things along!

The man himself, image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Tolstoy On Changing Yourself, Not Humanity; August Challenge

I thought that I'd share the lovely Tolstoy quote that was read out this morning on Radio 2:
"In our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself." Leo Tolstoy
This makes a lot of sense to me, as a person constantly striving for self-improvement. This quote also links nicely to a challenge that I've set myself for this month. It's based on the August challenge that Angela over at Oh She Glows has set, in which she - and interested readers - must "do one thing a day that scares you". Here are the relevant links:

Angela's introduction to the challenge
Angela's progress log

The "do one thing a day that scares you" mantra was famously spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who knew a thing or two. The message of this quote is particularly relevant to those that suffer from anxiety, or are afraid to escape their comfort zone. I've written a bit about exposure therapy before, and I see it as extremely beneficial. Yes, it's scary, but it works.


This challenge isn't just for general or social anxiety, of course, but for anything that you feel is holding you back. If you try to avoid or postpone something that makes your heart race, it's clear that you need to act on it. Extreme phobias may require more structured help from a professional, but I'm sure that there are things for everyone to do. Start small, and make your targets achievable. In the long-run, challenging your fears will reap huge benefits.

I've thought a little about what scares me most, and I recommend others to do the same. Here is my list:

  • Speaking in front of people, particularly being the centre of attention
  • Asking questions - in shops, about other people, for directions
  • Phone calls
  • Being criticised or judged
  • Being assertive
  • Crowds and busy places
  • Water
  • Horrid animals with horrible tails (I'm not brave enough to say the name!)

Most of these fears bring me immediate stress just thinking about them. However, as Emerson wisely said,
"Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain."
If I can counter these fears, I'll find university, socialising, and everyday tasks easier. As a result, I'll be happier, less stressed, have a better social life, and do better in my studies. That's certainly worth the short-term effort and anxiety. I'll be posting my progress and achievements on this progress page.

War and Peace: Thoughts on the Epilogue

It feels like I've left it too long after finishing War and Peace to write about it, but I'll try my best! I completed it last Thursday, and since then I have read a few other books that have blurred my memory somewhat. It was a relatively quick re-read (by War and Peace standards!), taking me two weeks exactly to finish. My first reading was certainly a lot longer than that.

You may be wondering why I was mad enough to wish to read it again, as my family frequently asked. Well, it's such a "complete" novel that covers so much about life: birth, childhood, learning, love, arguments, death. Tolstoy demonstrates a true passion for life in all it's grandeur and trivialities. I love how the characters are never static but constantly developing, and the way in which they grow and change because of events. In particular, I find Pierre's imprisonment and transformation so inspiring. Tolstoy manages to put everything into the grander scheme of things, and you find yourself appreciating life rather than worrying without reason. As one of my favourite quotes reads,

"Yes! It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky!"

For me, reading that really puts my anxieties into perspective.

I'm so glad that Natasha and Pierre end up together at long last, after so many individual struggles. Their family life illustrated in the epilogue appears so settled and loving, and they must be great parents!  I certainly prefer this match to that of Nikolay and Marya - for some reason they appear quite awkward together to me. Readers may criticise Natasha for "letting herself go", but I think that she's just transitioned into a more mature, settled stage of life after so much difficulty. I prefer her like this, to be honest; as a child she's a bit too bratty.

My favourite character in the epilogue of War and Peace is probably little Nikolay. His admiration of Pierre is so heartwarming, and the closing lines of the epilogue carry so much hope for the future:

"But Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful man he is! And then there's my father. Father! Father! Yes, I'm going to do something even he would have been pleased with."

We are left with the traditional views of (the older) Nikolay, and the forward-thinking, modern minds of Pierre and little Nikolay. By having Pierre as a mentor, I'm sure that he will make his father proud.

I'm really glad that I've re-read this: it has definitely been worth the effort. I'm sure that I'll return to it many times more in the future. If you haven't read it before, do it!

This is such a lovely, simple picture of Tolstoy.  From 

Here's a rather long list of previous posts:

Poetry by León Felipe: Biography, Poetry and Destiny (Biografía, Poesía y Destino)


The poet first tells of his life to men;
Then, when men are sleeping, to the birds
And when the birds have flown,
He tells it to the trees...
Later the Wind passes and there’s a murmur of leaves.
And this is what the Wind tells me:
The peacock lifts his tail
And extends his fan,
The poet
Should move only the feathers on his wings.
All of which translates as follows:
What I tell men is full of pride;
What I tell the birds, music;
What I tell the trees, tears.
And everything is a song composed for the Wind,
Which then, after,
This forgetful and lone spectator
Can remember but a few words.
But these words remembered are never
By stones. What the poet tells to
The stones is full of
Eternity. And this is the song of Destiny,
Which the stars will neither

The original poem can be found in Felipe's Ganarás la luz collection.

Note: I am now posting my translations here:

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Reading of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens in The Dark Knight Rises

Two leading actors in The Dark Knight Rises, a film with a lovely reading from Dickens.

The Dark Knight Rises is a very long film indeed, and Bane is a horrible character. But I got through it. Towards the end - I won't give away any spoilers - there was a moment that helped me get through it. A character was reading from a book, a Penguin Classics edition judging by the white stripe. I wasn't sure of the quote's origin, but as soon as I got out of the cinema I looked it up, and found it to be the ending of A Tale of Two Cities.

Below are the passages that I think were read aloud in the film, although I cannot be entirely sure if it was a longer or shorter section.

"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long long to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out."

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

The ending of A Tale of Two Cities does match the film well, and the reference did seem to add a lot more depth to the plot, I felt. Have you seen the film? Did you enjoy this Dickens quote?

Monday, 6 August 2012

August Reading So Far

Having finished War and Peace (final post to follow), I've spent a lot of time reading the last few days - avidly is probably the word. The journey north to visit my boyfriend, Chris, is always extremely valuable to me: I look forward to it as a time to rest, think, and rejuvenate with the aid of literature. On the outward journey I read a large portion of Simple Pleasures, mentioned in this post. It's perfect reading material for travel, as one of those light and positive books fuelled by optimism. I also read about a hundred pages of Freedom From Fear on the train, Aung San Suu Kyi's collected writings, and continued to read it at Liverpool Lime Street station.

The station is full of metal, backless benches: these I approached to sit on and read first. Yet I quickly realised their failure to be a "reading chair". I'm one of those people who constantly seek a comfortable sitting position but never quite get there. I moved on to the station's Costa coffee-house, where I had better luck. After spilling my coffee practically everywhere, and mopping up the evidence with a surprisingly absorbant serviette, I settled down to read until meeting my boyfriend after he'd finished work. Before that time an elderly woman - who I must class as at least mildly eccentric - asked if she could join me at my table, and we both sat reading peacefully with our respective Americano and latte.

My boyfriend bought me two new books during the weekend (this has become somewhat of a tradition). The first, Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart, was recommended to me by my bookshop boss, and I have spent this morning reading the majority of it. More about that in a later post. The other book is Stephen King's 11.22.63; it appears to be a bit of a tome, and I'm not sure what to expect as a Stephen King virgin (is that a horrible way to put it?) It's rated well on Goodreads, which I'm sure must mean that there's absolutely no chance of it disappointing me. Ok, sarcasm over - I'm just a bit let down still after finding Cloud Atlas so awful, a book loved by so many.

I hope that everybody reading this enjoyed the Olympic Super Saturday (you surely must have watched it!) Happy Monday one and all.

Liverpool's a fantastically cultural city. From

Thursday, 2 August 2012

War and Peace: Thoughts on Volume IV

I must say that Volume IV contains most of my favourite moments in War and Peace. There's so much to relate to, to learn from. In my edition, this volume surely has the highest number of annotations.

Hélène's illness and death largely determine the course of the final sections. It's part of Pierre's journey to freedom, despite how morbid that sounds. If Hélène hadn't fallen ill, Pierre progression as a character would have certainly been hindered. His wife would have probably drawn scandal to their marriage through adultery too. Pierre becomes the type of person Tolstoy always aspired to be: he sees the good in everyone, he avoids confrontation, and he simply has that "joie de vivre".

Pierre's transformation is enabled by his imprisonment. He learns that "man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within". Pierre goes on to state that as there is "a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom", "there is nothing in the world to be frightened of". This latter phrase means the most to me - it helps me realise that my anxiety is entirely meaningless and trivial. Anxiety is an unnecessary expenditure of energy, time and mood, and I have no rational answer for why I'm so affected by it.

I imagine that it's a fear of the unknown and all that I'm not used to. Pierre overcomes his similar fear and discomfort in a brutal, unenviable way: he witnesses an execution that he believes he will be part of too. It's common to hear of people who are intensely changed after emotional and traumatic events, undergoing a sort of philosophical transformation. Before being faced with the possibility of the termination of life or its brutality, we are used to safety and luxury. As a result, it's all too common to complain about trivialities. But after coming face to face with death and lost freedom, like Pierre, we realise the sanctity of life and each present moment.

Prince Andrey's philosophy on life also changes in his final moments. Tolstoy narrates that "he was experiencing a sense of remoteness from all earthy things, and a strangely joyful lightness of being" (did this inspire Milan Kundera?) When faced with such urgency, there's no room for anxiety. Instead, Andrey enjoys the purest magnificence of life in his final moments. Unfortunately Petya has no time for such thoughts, and death approaches him by complete surprise. Perhaps this is the favoured way to go, however.

I think everyone wishes to experience Andrey's "lightness of being", although not in such circumstances. But perhaps it's so enviable because of it's brevity and rarity. I've had what may be called subliminal experiences in the presence of the spectacular: waterfalls, cathedrals, the silence and beauty of nature.

However, it's generally hard to appreciate the full beauty of life and the present without facing a life-changing event (although I certainly wouldn't want to wish trauma on anybody). Yet Tolstoy presents Pierre's "joie de vivre" as contagious. Pierre is inspired by Platon Karatayev, the embodiment of truth and simplicity in a negative environment of suffering. Moreover, Pierre's vitality lifts Natasha from her depression and loss of faith in life's goodness. If we don't have sufficient motive to fully appreciate the present, we can surround ourselves with those who do. And of course visit and experience as many beautiful things as you can!