Friday, 25 January 2013

Charles Dickens' Tour of America, as Described in American Notes

Image of Charles Dickens's route through America from
After reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens last year, I had some prior knowledge of his voyage to America in 1842. Yet actually reading the account of his travels in American Notes was so insightful, and I believe it changed my perceptions of the author and his character. He actually spent time around children, used public transport (even if he had no choice) and proved that he was not someone to ignore issues that bothered him.

Dickens was the most famous man of his day to make the journey, and he anticipated his trip into the 'New World' with great excitement. When writing to John Forster, his friend and editor, he told him in words that were doubly underlined (translated by Forster into exclamatory capital letters), that:


And go he did. When the author's library was sold after his death, he still possessed Francis Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Harriet Martineau's Society in America (1837) and Frederick Marryat's Diary in America (1839). It is estimated that some 200 such accounts of travels were published between 1815 and 1860, and therefore it was only to be expected that Dickens would write his own. However, his illustration of America as a land ruled by money, partly built on slavery, and possessing a corrupt press and unsavoury manners (alongside having pigs on Broadway) was less expected, and the publication provoked a hostile reaction on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the aspects of America most contested by Dickens was "that most hideous blot and foul disgrace - Slavery". It was not abolished throughout the United States until 1865, twenty-three years after Dickens' trip, although on the author's behalf there was a significant degree of historical forgetting. The Slavery Abolition Act in Britain had been passed relatively recently - in 1833 - and it excepted "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company," the "Island of Ceylon," and "the Island of Saint Helena" until 1843. Dickens waits until the latter stage of the book before dedicating a whole chapter to his discussion of slavery, in which he regularly utilises the language of the Declaration of Independence (particularly by speaking of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) in order to condemn it. Dicken's language here is scathing, gruesome, and above all, powerful.

This is directly in contrast to the book's frequent humour - whether intentional or not - which became a leading reason why I enjoyed reading it so much. One example of this is Dickens' ranting about certain subjects, and in particular, the chewing and spitting of tobacco. To say that Dickens disliked this habit would be an incredible understatement; he really could not bear it in the slightest. You so can easily picture the author transformed into a state of twitchy agitation whilst writing this passage:

In the courts of law, the judge has his spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course of nature must desire to spit incessantly. In the hospitals, the students of medicine are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject their tobacco juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to discolour the stairs. In public buildings, visitors are implored, through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids, or ‘plugs,’ as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and not about the bases of the marble columns. But in some parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social life. The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness, at Washington. And let him not persuade himself (as I once did, to my shame) that previous tourists have exaggerated its extent. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.

Dickens was so excited about taking this trip that it was doomed to not live up to his expectations, and the reader can only commiserate. Yet it must be noted that Dickens' character portraits are, as to be expected, wonderful.

Also, it is not a wholly negative outlook: the travel narrative contains many varying perspectives, views and styles of writing. It's intriguing to read Dickens' intricate descriptions of contemporary travel - with all of its associated danger - and insightful to consider the rapid progression of the state and its institutions at the time. The most famous element of the book is, I believe, Dicken's sheer astonishment at the magnificence of Niagara Falls:

Oh, how the strife and trouble of daily life receded from my view, and lessened in the distance, during the ten memorable days we passed on that Enchanted Ground! What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears, the drops of many hues, that showered around, and twined themselves about the gorgeous arches which the changing rainbows made!

This description, although swaying towards to the clichéd verse of a Romantic's diary, is what I hope to remember American Notes by. The non-fiction travel narrative was not a natural genre for Dickens to adopt, and I think that he did remarkably well considering. My lecturer was keen to point out that Dickens appreciated the American nation a great deal more upon returning in 1867, at the end of which trip he promised to never denounce America again. I found this a bit of an anti-climax, after my comic imaginings of Dickens being the stereotypical grumpy British tourist, but I'm sure that in private the author retained some pet peeves about the country, as he would of anywhere.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Obama's Inauguration Poem : 'One Today' by Richard Blanco

Obama's inauguration, featuring Richard Blanco's poetry. Image from

I'm sure that a lot of you will have watched Obama's inauguration today. I did, and I'm not even American. I presumed that my American housemate was going to, but she bluntly replied that she was not. I think she wanted Romney to win the elections, and so I didn't tell her afterwards how I enjoyed Obama's speech. I particularly liked the sections on immigration and striving towards success regardless of circumstance, in case you have more interest than her. I didn't think that the speech ended in a very memorable manner, but I could only wish to be such a great speaker. 

I though that I'd post the inaugural poem read by Richard Blanco: the youngest, first immigrant, first Latino, and first openly gay person to be a U.S. inaugural poet. That sentence was very hard to word (I hope it makes sense!) I wasn't sure about some parts of this poem, but after reading it through I'm more favourable towards it. I think that the personal elements of the poem will be relatable to many readers and listeners, and that they will give the poem more chance of being remembered. Personally, the phrase "hands as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane/ so my brother and I could have books and shoes" will stick with me for long to come. 

There have only been four inaugural poets (as far as the website I read this from can tell): Robert Frost read at John Kennedy’s 1961 swearing-in, Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, in 1993, and Miller Williams at his second, in 1997. In 2009 Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s first inaugural, and then Blanco read "One Today", well, today. Reading poetry at such events should certainly become more common practice.

However, the link I've referred to in the last paragraph suggests why there have only been four poets. For one, cunning presidents may realise the danger of letting a skilled poet detract attention from their own speech. Also, there's an early example of the poetic practice not succeeding entirely: on JFK's inauguration, the weather did not cooperate with ceremonial plans. Snow had fallen heavily, and the sunlight blinded Frost, despite Lyndon Johnson’s best efforts to use his top hat to shield Frost’s paper. Frost was unable to read "Dedication", a poem written especially for the occasion, and was left to recite from memory some lines of another poem of his: "The Gift Outright". However, you cannot dismiss the replacement poem as irrelevant. In fact, it was perfect for its purpose (you can read it online here).

"One Today"
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

Tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

My Favourite Classical Music, featuring Haruki Murakami's novels, The Road to Perdition Soundtrack, Chopin and more

Road to Perdition, the movie with my favourite classical soundtrack.

Unfortunately, as I have nowhere to travel to for once, I'm in one of the few places in Britain that isn't covered with snow. It's dreary outside, but at least it isn't raining like yesterday. As Bill Bryson emphasises in Notes From a Small Island, there is always a way to be positive when discussing English weather. I'm spending today reading university texts, with special attention on American Notes by Charles Dickens and Martín Fierro by José Hernández. I'm particularly enjoying the former.

Perhaps because of the dreary weather, or alternatively due to my abundance of uni reading, this post won't be entirely literary. Instead, I'm talking about music: the classical variety. To start the post on a literature-related note, Haruki Murakami - a lover of classical music - has been featured a great deal in the blogosphere this month, due to his turning 64. As nerdy entertainment, Random House once created this interesting link which lists all of the classical pieces referred to in his fiction. From the top of my head, I could recall Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta being mentioned a great deal in 1Q84 (this isn't mentioned on the Random House link, probably because the novel is more recent), alongside Bach in Norwegian Wood. Music is such an integral part of Murakami's novels, and by listening to the pieces mentioned you can often understand the layering of the plot so much more.

Then there's Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, inspired by the elemental drive of Beethoven's violin and piano sonata of the same title, and Corelli's "Heil Puccini" in the music-centred Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The list could go on and on, to Proust, Turgenev, and my recently read The Garden of Evening Mists. All of these novellists and novels attempt to capture the intangible power of music in writing, and I'd say that they all succeed to some degree or other. The link between music and literature is so interesting, and I could think about it a great deal.

Four or five years ago I started properly listening to classical music, and now I often find that it matches my mood (and sensitive ears) better than my usual music choices (if you're interested in being nosy, here's my account). 

I'd like to mention the classical pieces that I enjoy most, and perhaps explain why:

1. Road to Perdition soundtrack - Thomas Newman

Despite only recently watching Road to Perdition, and enjoying it greatly, I've adored the soundtrack for many years. I first heard it on a radio programme, labelled as the song that the DJ felt best fitted "watching the earth from space", or something similar. I have listened to the song over and over, and I find it so beautiful.

2. Prelude in E Minor - Chopin

I frequently end up listening to this when I'm feeling slightly down, which perhaps isn't the best of ideas. It's a very melancholy, mournful song, with something devastating about it. I wonder what Chopin had on his mind at the time.

3. Le Nozze di Figaro, K.492, Act III: Canzonetta sull'aria - Mozart

Yes, another choice from a film, but it's a great one. The moment in Shawshank Redemption when Andy (Tim Robbins) plays the duettino over the prison's loudspeakers must be one of my favourite moments of any film. "Red" (Morgan Freeman) remarks in his voice-over narration that,

"I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. [...] I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it."

Ironically, the opera characters are singing about a duplicitous love letter to expose infidelity, and Andy's wife's affair is the event which indirectly leads to his imprisonment. This is such a poignant, moving song, and the film captures its effect so well. 

4. The Planets: Jupiter - Holst

This piece has so frequently been used for patriotic means (rather annoyingly, I find), but the orchestral version is lovely. The middle section is so powerful and uplifting to listen to, and it always makes me feel a little less feeble than I normally do. 

I must excuse myself now for the clichéd adjectives and descriptions used in this post. However, by writing this post I now feel less affected by the gloomy weather, and therefore my goal has been successful. Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Painful Case by James Joyce: Dubliners, Nietzsche, Loneliness

Last week, with my home bookshelves to hand alongside a lack of work, I spent some time revisiting James Joyce's Dubliners. I posted not long ago about the collection - particularly "The Dead" - but I recently found another story that resonated with me and kept coming to mind. I had read it before, but as many of you will agree, often a re-read is required in order to fully appreciate a text. The story is called "A Painful Case", and it is approximately thirteen pages long. If you are interested in reading the text, it is available here online.

A manuscript of "A Painful Case". Image from

Mr. Duffy is an unadventurous bank cashier who lives an organised, uneventful life. His house is tidy, he eats at the same restaurants, and his commute never changes. His life is probably best described as boring, until he converses with another audience member at the opera, Mrs. Sinico, who is sitting with her daughter. They encounter each other again at concerts, and eventually Duffy arranges a proper meeting with her, even though she is married. Despite the protagonist's previously predictable routine, his life becomes increasingly fuelled with culture and intellectual activity following his meetings with Mrs. Sinico. They discuss similar interests, including books, political theories, and music, and gradually they become closer. However, intimacy results in discomfort, and the friendship is irrevocably changed. Years pass, and we learn of the characters' tragic misfortunes, regrets and loss.

For Duffy, love and affection means the total destruction of routine and order: he "abhorr[s] anything which betokened physical or mental disorder". Scorning his fellow men, Duffy prefers to live away from the city of Dublin. By Joyce situating the character in the village of Chapelizod (the name derived from "Chapel d'Iseult", he associates Duffy with Tristan and Iseult, whose passionate and adulterous love affair has been celebrated by medieval poets such as Malory and Bedier, and more recently by Wagner, Arnold and Binyon. Through evoking this legend Joyce sets Duffy's sterile restraint in ironic contrast to one of the most compelling love stories in literature, and so underscores the poverty of his modern hero's emotional life.

Having turned down love as a way to emotionalise his mental life, Duffy begins to read Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher with an even greater scorn of the herd than himself. However, the newspaper article at the centre of the story holds the most powerful, interpretative language. I do not wish to reveal the whole plot in this post but, beneath the article's supposedly bland language, a reader can interpret blame and questionable causation of events. 

Like other characters in Dubliners who experience epiphanies, Mr. Duffy is not inspired to begin a new phase in his life, but instead he bitterly accepts his loneliness. In a cyclical turn back to the start of the novel, Duffy will continue to be the solitary intellectual mirrored in the Wordsworth edition that dominates his bookshelf.

I'm sure that I'll return to this short story: it's so beautifully written and thought-provoking. Joyce forces you to consider loneliness, and to question whether you push people away who could, and often do, help you. I know for a fact that I have been guilty of this in the past, but I've come to realise the importance of knocking down the figurative twenty-foot wall around me. After all, no one truly wants to end up like Mr. Duffy.

Here's an extract from the story:

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying. Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life's feast.

Monday, 14 January 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Themes, Concept of Morality & Family Reading Time

Image from

Although I first read To Kill a Mockingbird for my English GCSE about four years ago, I decided to re-read it recently. There's a reason for this: I was shocked to find out that my boyfriend had never read the novel before, and therefore I bought him a copy. However, I soon gave into temptation and read it myself before handing it over.

The story, told through the eyes of Scout Finch, describes the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell. The opening chapters describe life up to the trial, alongside the development of principal characters and relationships. Later, with the trial comes changes in maturity, morality and individual and collective identity. The novel is intrinsically bound to questions of race, gender, social status and moral justice. Harper Lee clashes polar opposites together, and we're left to investigate the results. There's the clash of black and white in the court case, whilst Dolphus Raymond's family represents a mixing of the two. Aunt Alexandra's tea parties represent the richer, more sophisticated life of Maycomb (despite a troubled economy), whilst the Ewell's home is a straightforward illustration of poverty.

I adore so much about the novel: the writing style, the moral slant, the plot. But I most enjoy the characterisation. In fact, the novel probably contains my favourite literary characters. Scout is inquisitive and unaffected by prejudice, but she is occasionally disturbed by the unfair, grown-up world around her. Atticus, on the other hand, is well-versed in the injustices of the U.S. South in the 1930s. He is accepting yet eager for change; to do what he feels simply has to be done for his society. He is the type of person that I'd aspire to be like as a parent, and even now I find a lot that I can learn from him. He treats Jem and Scout with respect and as intellectual equals, yet he also considers his wider family in his decisions (no matter how inspirational I find Atticus, I couldn't happily let someone like Aunt Alexandra stay with me). Regardless of what others say about him, he manages to retain dignity and self-esteem. I really need to pay attention to this trait of his, and realise that what others say or think really does not matter in the slightest.

Last night's snow: I'm not sure it would even be enough to make an
"absolute morphodite".
I love how frequently the Finch family turn to literature - in fact, it makes even my constant reading seem normal. Before bedtime Jem and Scout wind down with a book, whilst Atticus's routine and his time spent with his children depends upon his newspaper reading. I wonder how different the family routine would be if Scout and Jem's mother were still alive. Calpurnia would certainly not have such a central role, and the children may not be so capable to think and act for themselves.

I'm so glad that the novel is often included in school syllabuses. It's the perfect book to accompany the transition between childhood and adulthood, or even adolescence and adulthood. Depending on age, a reader will directly relate best to Scout, Jem, or even Dill. Or, having grown up, a reader can see aspects of their childhood in all three characters. I can compare my own youthful imagination to Dill's, my responsibility as eldest sibling to Jem, and my childish desire for knowledge to Scout.

To Kill a Mockingbird is such a lovely book - definitely one of my favourites - and I can anticipate stealing the copy back from my boyfriend at some time or other.

5 Stars

Friday, 11 January 2013

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson and Being British

I'm going to be studying Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island this upcoming university term, and so I thought it sensible to read it now that exams are done and I have free time before lectures start. I've never read anything by Bryson before, but I enjoyed his writing. It wasn't quite what I expected: I thought it would be a brief, sometimes humorous travel narrative from the perspective of a tourist. Rather, Bryson explores British life, culture and landmarks as a person who has lived here for an extensive time. He understands Marmite, the daytime television on offer, and ever-present optimism in regards to weather. Here's the book's description on Goodreads:

After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson - bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America - decided to return to the United States. ("I had recently read," Bryson writes, "that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.") But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.

Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie's Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.

I can't quite decide how to characterise Bryson: can he ever escape being an American tourist? When living in London or other big cities, you can settle down and be accepted by others relatively easily, regardless of nationality. However, I'm not too sure about North Yorkshire. I live in a small village, and people are naturally very set in their ways. Nonetheless, Bryson's knowledge of the UK is impeccable. The book becomes a guide for residents as well as tourists, and he lists so many interesting places and landmarks that I'd never heard of before. In fact, in an opinion poll organised for World Book Day in 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted by Radio 4 listeners as the book which best represented Britain: pretty impressive, you must say.

Yet I imagine that Notes From a Small Island would be quite hard to read if you hadn't visited Britain before. There are so many mentions of little things that define Britain for me, but for others they must seem simply obscure. Place names, which Bryson spends a significant amount of the book discussing, can be completely ridiculous. Some of our other customs and habits are also very weird. No wonder it took Bryson two decades of living in Britain before he could write a book about it.

My favourite part of the book was probably Bryson's discussion of Liverpool: I spend so much time there and the city has so much history. One section in particular made me laugh, although my boyfriend - being from Liverpool - probably wouldn't approve, and I can't say that I've experienced a similar situation (bear in mind this was written around 1995):

"As I was sitting there drinking my beer and savouring my plush surroundings, some guy came in with a collecting tin from which the original label had been clumsily scratched, and asked me for a donation for handicapped children.
'Which handicapped children?' I asked.
'Ones in wheelchairs like.'

'I mean which organisation do you represent?'

'It's, er, the, er, Handicapped Children's Organisation, like.'

'Well, as long as it's totally legitimate,' I said, and gave him 20p. And that is what like so much about Liverpool. The factories may be gone, there may be no work, the city may be pathetically dependent on football for its sense of destiny, but the Liverpudlians still have character and initiative, and they don't bother you with preposterous ambitions to win the bid for the next Olympics."
It's always more enjoyable to read about places that you know well, which is a leading reason why I liked this book. There was a section about my university town, alongside London which I know reasonably well, and these parts were so easy to read.

Other chapters of the book did drag slightly, but if I had visited the places mentioned I'm sure I'd have less trouble. I know that many readers dislike the author's style - he likes to swear a lot and can be quite judgemental, to say the least - but you come around to it. Often, after arriving at a town by night and dismissing it as a dirty and inhabitable place, he'll wake up and sing its praises. As Bryson says quite clearly, your interpretation of a place is extremely dependent on where you've come from to get to it.

It'll be interesting to study Notes From a Small Island in a few weeks, and I'm particularly curious as to how the lecture will go. After a term of The Faerie Queene, Thomas Nash, and other dense literature (in the kindest sense), the prospect of studying something modern and light seems very welcome.

4 Stars

Friday, 4 January 2013

Must-Read List for 2013

I realise that I'm a little late with this post, but it takes me some time to get my reading plans for the year ahead prepared. To begin with, here is a photo of the books that I've gained recently, which may or may not interest you.

The majority of my family refused to buy me books this Christmas, I'm afraid to say, which decreases the books gained compared to previous Christmases. Despite this, my grandmother did get me Tolstoy's Master and Man, alongside a Penguin Dictionary of Quotations that I'm very excited about. However, she did tell me, I quote, to "get a life", and got me some Clinique eyeliner to somehow help this. My mother also refused to get me books, but slightly cheated by getting me the Fresh Meat book (haha). My Dad, being lovely, said he'd buy me all the books I need for my next English module. The ones that have arrived already are pictured above, including: American Notes (Charles Dickens); On Beauty (Zadie Smith); Star of the Sea (Joseph O'Connor); Notes From a Small Island (Bill Bryson). Oh, Sylvia Plath's Crossing the Water is also tucked away under American Notes.

A delivery man just knocked on the door bearing my new bookshelf, which I'll leave for somebody with DIY knowledge and common-sense to construct. When completed, I'll probably spend an afternoon embracing my bookishness and frequently compulsive organisational tendencies. Photos are likely to follow.

Of all my new literary material, I particularly appreciate the quotations dictionary, and therefore I thought it deserved a photo of its own:

But, moving on, here are my reading-related plans for 2013. I've divided the books somewhat into categories, for reasons of organisation and having the free time to do so. There are only fourteen books, 13.3% (ooh, unlucky?) of the 95 books I intent to read in 2013 according to Goodreads. Actually, I've checked and I apparently want to read 100 books - therefore, the books below account for 14%, and I am no longer unlucky.

I hope that I shall read a lot more than the following, but many of these books are ones that I've wanted to read for some time and I've never quite got round to. Writing them down like this should make the goal feel more concrete.

Tolstoy Challenge
  • Master and Man
  • Childhood, Boyhood, Youth
  • Hadji Murad

  • Metamorphoses - Ovid
  • Swann's Way - Marcel Proust
  • The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann
  • The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

  • War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
  • Ulysses - James Joyce
  • The Tempest - William Shakespeare
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Books Neglected on my Bookshelf
  • Bleak House - Charles Dickens
  • Coriolanus - William Shakespeare

All the best for 2013 - read plentifully!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Life of Pi Movie: Religion, the Natural World, Stoicism

Image from

I'm afraid, book lovers, that this post will cover the film version of Yann Martel's Life of Pi novel. I read the novel a few years ago, and would really love to read it again, but this post is largely in response to my cinema trip last week. However, I must say that I felt the film to be accurate to the text - always a good thing!

The film has been advertised as a work of such great attention to detail and beauty. Producers are become increasingly obsessed with visuals, what with the shutter speed of The Hobbit (you can't escape hearing this) and the popularity of films in 3D. I watched Life of Pi in 2D due to my hatred of 3D glasses, and I have to say that it lived up to the hype. Below is a quick copy and paste from Wikipedia, if you are unfamiliar with the plot. I'll warn you now - it's concise.

Life of Pi is a 2012 American adventure drama film based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel of the same name. The film is about a 16-year old boy named Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, who suffers a shipwreck in which his family dies, and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Despite this minimalist summary, there are so many things to discuss about the film. However, I'll limit my discussion here to just a few ideas, and I'm not going to mention the ending. Therefore, my post hopefully won't become akin to a rambling essay. If you are interested in the real vs false plot question, I found this article interesting.

To begin with, Pi struggles with the concept of following just one religion. He is an accepting, loving child, and sees no reason why he cannot embrace Hinduism, Christianity and Islam equally. You cannot help but smile at the innocent idealism of a world with widespread acceptance and sharing of faith. Yet one must also question the perpetual question of morality: if Pi is such a great kid and believes in three religions, with three sets of gods to protect him, why does he suffer so greatly?

Perhaps he suffers in order to experience what he does: the sublime beauty of an unpolluted starry sky reflecting on the ocean, the friendship he forms with animals and nature, the time he spends contemplating the world, or more appropriately the universe, around him. Before the shipwreck, Pi is seen to be reading Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky and Albert Camus' L’Étranger. If you are familiar with literature, which I imagine you are if you are reading my blog, you'll probably be smiling at the chosen books; they are so associated with teenage angst and a search for identity and meaning. Although the shipwreck is an intensely traumatic experience - if it did in fact happen, of which I will say no more - it allows Pi to view his life with less confusion and need for explanation. Things happen, you cannot change them, and you have to find a way to live with what you've got (in Pi's case, a tiger). As we are often reminded, Pi's story is one that will "make you believe in God", and, because of his suffering, he has gained a direction in life that eventually allows him to tell his story.

If the shipwreck had happened to the average teenage boy, I'm unsure he would have lasted very long. Pi displays perseverance, courage and, eventually, a stoic acceptance of what has happened to him and his family. When he realises that he can do nothing other than accept his situation, he focuses on training Richard Parker (the tiger), writing a journal between the lines of his survival manual, and improving his raft. I found the following diagram very appropriate and amusing:

To be honest, Pi couldn't deal with his predicament any better. He didn't have a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations on hand, regrettably, but it sounds like he did. For instance, on watching the stars above him whilst alone in the ocean with a tiger, the following phrase from Meditations comes to mind:

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

After effectively hitting rock bottom, Pi accepts the power of the omnipotent guy in the sky, and states aloud that he isn't scared of death. This is rather like,

"Despise not death, but welcome it, for nature wills it like all else."

I could say a lot more, and I am sure that I will go on to contemplate the film a great deal. Yet I've come to believe that, to Pi, religion is not bound to a name or a God. It is more a connection to the wider whole, be it the ocean, flying fish, or the night sky, alongside an intense feeling of acceptance. Pi remains a part of the world around him, regardless of his solitude, and he doesn't lose touch with the spiritual world. Perhaps this is why his story will "make you believe in God", although not a typical, individual concept of a God. Hmm, so much to think about.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Farewell, 2012

Image from the BBC. 

Everybody says it, every single year, but this year has flown by. It has been a year of so many memories and "where were you?" moments - for me, the London Olympics will always make 2012 a key year of my youth. I've done so much myself: I began this blog in June, I completed my August Challenge in, well, August, and I've successfully settled into my second year of university. I started a new job, overcome the past in many respects, and reconciled my relationship with my mother somewhat. I've learned so many new things and exposed myself to such a great amount of cultural and natural beauty. I'm proud of myself, and I'm keen to see how 2013 will turn out.

Naming the upcoming year always sounds so raw for some time - currently, "2013" refers to an unobtainable, distant point of the future rather than something commencing so shortly.

I'm excited about all of the books I will go on to study this university year. When I return in mid-January, after an exam I really should revise for, I'll be studying one module about transatlantic literature that includes Plath, Dickens and Bill Bryson, and another on Latin American "Nation and Narration". Also, I'll spend a year working in Spain from next September - an inevitably fearful yet very promising prospect!

I'm not sure about resolutions at this point of the year. Yet I do, like many others, love the thought of a fresh start. Today I've been trying to think of a focus for 2013. I was inspired by Amy Sundberg's "Year of Friendship", but quiet, independent contemplation is of most importance to me at the moment. Therefore, below is a little passage that comes to mind. Perhaps I'll remember to re-read it at some point, although perhaps I won't:

To accept and enjoy all that comes to me. To ensure that I acknowledge the beautiful things in life, and to take time - no matter how short - to do this. To connect and share, no matter how hard this can be. To feel a part of the collective whole, and feel confident enough to contribute my personality and talents. To read excessively, watch great films, listen to incredible music, and see beautiful art. To stop worrying and simply focus on all that makes it worthwhile being here (because it really is worthwhile). SMILE.

So now Big Ben has struck twelve, the BBC has boasted an incredibly expensive quantity of fireworks, and Come On Eileen is playing on Jools Holland's Hootenanny. 2013 has truly begun, and I wish you all the best.