Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Weekly Reader

Wednesday is here again! Today we are saying farewell to July and hoping for an August equal in sunshine and summer excitement. Aside from the obvious occupations (dissertation writing and Knebworth House), my August will feature an Oxford excursion with my mum and a few theatre/concert trips. Lots to look forward to and I'm hoping that you also have plenty booked in to get the most out of your August!


'What Drives Writers To Drink?' - The Guardian

This article features an extract from Olivia Laing's new book The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. The book explores the link between authors and habitual drinking - considering the experiences of renowned writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams. The extract makes for interesting reading and the book looks to be an important examination of the connection between alcohol addiction and literary creativity.

'Sir Tom Stoppard Wins Annual Pen Pinter Prize' - BBC

Sir Tom Stoppard is undoubtedly one of the greatest contemporary playwrights. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is one of my all-time favourite plays, so the news that Sir Tom will be recipient of this year's PEN Pinter Prize is fantastic news. The prize was established by the anti-censorship organisation PEN, in honour of renowned playwright Harold Pinter. Sir Tom will receive the prize in October at the British Library.

'What Are Your Book Dealbreakers?' - Book Riot

This is an interesting short article about personal book 'dealbreakers'. In this context, we are talking about those plot, character, or stylistic details that have the potential to completely alter your view of a book. The author of the article lists inappropriately-emotional female characters and sudden romance amongst her dealbreakers. This is an interesting issue to consider. Currently reading Nabokov's Lolita, the question of boundaries is one that I am finding myself facing. I think that having some understanding of our personal tastes and expectations is vital, because it enables us to better understand our response to the novels that we read. An important step to becoming a more discerning reader.

'19 Book Cover Cliches' - Buzz Feed

I love a good book cover. So the visual repetition with which we are faced when walking into a bookshop really riles me. Being hyperaware of this, I was still surprised by how numerous the book cover cliches are - illustrated perfectly by this article. If I see one more silhouetted male in a top hat, I will really lose it.


Today marks the birthday of personal heroine, JK Rowling. So what could the theme of this section possibly be, other than all things Harry Potter?

'Harry Potter Inspired Jewellery' - Sawyer and Scout

For those of you new to The Book Habit, you will not remember my Sawyer and Scout Snitch Necklace Giveaway. I met Sawyer and Scout's creator, Erin, through Blogger's Bookshelf and, from there, ended up purchasing one of her amazing Snitch Necklaces. The Giveaway was my way of spreading the joy. Sawyer and Scout has a number of fantastic Harry Potter pieces, from a Bertie Botts necklace to one displaying Neville's Remembrall. They are all fantastically well-priced and Erin caters to international orders!

'Make Love Not Horcruxes T Shirt' - Shirt Nic

Because this is a mantra that we should all work to live by.

'Fred And George Weasley Decorative Pillows' - TelahMarie


'Harry Potter Slytherin Garter Set' - Bridal Bliss 2000

Quite possibly the weirdest Harry Potter-related item I have seen. But what a lovely surprise for any new husband.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Happy (early) Birthday JK Rowling!

Tomorrow marks the birthday of sorceress of storytelling, JK Rowling. As a member of the lucky Harry Potter generation, Jo's books have been a big part of my life since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first graced the UK's bookshelves. As my family will attest, my obsession with the world of Harry Potter remains a dominant life theme and I don't think that this is something I will ever shake. Anything I say here, in honour of the woman who brought us so much, will be utterly inadequate. But I'm sure that many of us share a desire to add our voices to tomorrow's birthday wishes. So, we'll just say thanks JK. Only you could have made round spectacles so cool (well, you and John Lennon).

(I know I've posted this video before. But no homage to JK Rowling would be complete without it).

Monday, 29 July 2013

Monday Musing

Storms, storms, storms. We are finally paying the price for such wonderfully warm weather. Fortunately, monsoon rain is exactly what I need as I crank out my dissertation. I will admit, however, that storms always provoke a longing to curl up with one of the Harry Potter books. Nothing says rainy day reading quite like a bit of JK Rowling. Until 22 August, these longings will have to remain unfulfilled. But, never fear. I'm still finding time in my study/work breaks to get a fair bit of reading done. In honour of my current read, Slaughterhouse 5, today's Monday Musing comes courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Just For Fun Friday

I think I have mentioned once before that I have a bit of an obsession with facts and trivia. I would probably do well in a pub quiz situation, but my generally intense approach to most things would likely make my team membership a short one. This doesn't stop me devouring useless information whenever it pops up and today I will indulge my obsession a little more. Because books are weird and wonderful things - this Just For Fun Friday celebrates the fact.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Books and Authors

  1. The world's largest book is the Klencke Atlas, measuring 1.75 metres long and 1.90 metres wide (for non-metric friends, this is pretty big). The book was a gift for King Charles II and contains 37 printed maps.
  2. Over 20,000 books have been written about the game of Chess.
  3. There is a book in which the writer calculates pi to 2 million places, taking 800 pages to do so.
  4. New York Public Library bookshelves, if spread out end-to-end, would cover 80 miles.
  5. If you think that's impressive, the Library of Congress bookshelves would cover 327 miles.
  6. Noah Webster took 36 years to complete his first dictionary.
  7. The world's most expensive book, at $150 million, has just 13 pages. It is The Task by Tomas Alexander Hartmann.
  8. The original publication run for JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was just 500 books, as Bloomsbury were worried that it wouldn't sell.
  9. In the US, an average of 57 books per second are bought (although recent surveys suggest a yearly reading average of just 4 books for each American).
  10. Some scholars seriously believe that Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was the notorious murderer Jack the Ripper.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

It is always a fascinating experience when personal interests collide. Fortunately, my two principal passions - literature and human rights - are constantly intersecting. This said, with the majority of my day typically given over to human rights-based research, I do tend to steer clear of giving my personal reading time over to the subject. But in the case of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, I was prepared to make an exception. Consideration of the human rights situation in Iran, particularly relating to the experience of Iranian females, dominates academic study of the field. Always controversial, debates typically centre on the issue of cultural relativism - a question of where the line should be drawn between universal standards and cultural sensitivity. While I do not believe that this argument will ever be settled, I am always hyperaware of the dangers of academising (not a word, but one that works in this context) an experience as personal as that of human rights. Reading Lolita in Tehran bridges this gap. Coming to me as a recommendation from the Knebworth Book Group (run by my friend and attended by my Aunt) and having caused some heated debated between its members, I was happy to bring my two worlds into collision.

"Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive. We also instinctively recognized poshlust - not just in others, but in ourselves. This was one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity. What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner."

Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi's account of her life as a professor of literature in 1990s Iran. It focuses on the subversive, underground reading group that she creates with seven former, female students, in which forbidden works are read and discussed. From Nabokov's Lolita to Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the girls come together every Thursday under threat of discovery and punishment. Nafisi's revelation of the group's activities and the hopes and fears of its members are intertwined with a memoir of her experience as a university professor. Through her account, the evolution of post-revolutionary Iran is traced, as restrictions are placed on Iranian women and society. Nafisi's memoir is one of both repression and resistance, where the power of literature as a tool for empathy and understanding is central.

This book is an essential read for a number of reasons. Not only does it demonstrate the fundamental importance of fiction as a means for understanding and challenging the status quo, it also offers a unique, personal insight into the characteristics of 1990s Iran. While the account is undoubtedly subjective and restricted as the insight of one individual (Nafisi was clearly in the upper echelons of society as a married woman of Western education), the incorporation of the stories of the seven book group members offers a diverse narrative. It is through the experiences of these women that a comprehensive picture is painted: a picture of backward progress.

"You might well ask, What is Sanaz thinking as she walks the streets of Tehran? How much does this experience affect her? Most probably, she tries to distance her mind as much as possible from her surroundings. Perhaps she is thinking of her brother, or of her distant boyfriend and the time when she will meet him in Turkey. Does she compare her own situation with her mother's when she was the same age? Is she angry that women of her mother's generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women? Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?"

Reading Lolita in Tehran should be read first and foremost for its insight into one of the most troubling contemporary eradications of human rights standards. For all my time spent studying the subject, this memoir taught me a huge amount. Because, divorced the need to justify and contextualise, it offers a personal account of experience under a repressive regime. This is a story that cannot be grasped from textbooks, and is notably absent in any depth from television and news reports. 

On another level, this book is a wonderful exposition of the personal and social roles of literature. Through reflection on the impact of her chosen novels on the lives of her students, Nafisi effectively demonstrates the threat that such books are perceived to pose to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The chapters in which she describes the reaction of her university class to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and the subsequent decision to put the novel 'on trial' in the classroom, is a brilliant examination of the tension. In addressing one of her more radical and dissenting students, Mr. Nyazi, Nafisi summarises:

"What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven. This was what we had in common, although we were not aware of it then. Dreams, Mr. Nyazi, are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality? You would become a Humbert, destroying the object of your dream; or a Gatsby, destroying yourself."

This book makes for uncomfortable reading because it exposes a reality from which many of us would rather turn our heads. But Nafisi's style and approach to structure make Reading Lolita in Tehran a truly compelling read. To believe in the power of literature through the changes it has worked in our own lives is a wonderful thing. But such an introspective approach misses too much. Through Nafisi's account, the reader is exposed to an extreme - in which the classical works being read stand in superficial opposition to the values and norms of a society. Yet what we take away from Nafisi's account is that these books retain their power, wherever and by whomever they are read. Because great works are fundamentally about empathy, about seeing the world through the eyes and experience of another. This is a fact that translates across and transcends cultural difference. Not only does Reading in Lolita in Tehran offer a window into the personal experience of Nafisi and 'her girls', it achieves what all great books should look to - in creating an empathy that transcends national borders.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Weekly Reader

Hello friends!

Well, we are already into the last full week of July. While I am back in university mode, with my dissertation due at the end of August, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a few wonderful days off. In addition to copious amounts of reading, I have seen an amazing live broadcast of Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth and was today completely blown away by a fantastic new play Josephine and I at the Bush Theatre. Since today is also Papa Clarke's birthday (his present obviously taking book form), it is amounting to a truly superb week! I hope that you are all having an equally brilliant July. 


'Bank of England Plays It Safe With Jane Austen Quotation on New £10 Note' - The Guardian

This week has greeted us with the news that the Bank of England has decided to place Jane Austen on its new £10 notes. Long overdue, the decision is seemingly a partial response to critiques of the predominantly male representation on England's banknotes. It is interesting, however, that Austen's critiques of wealth and money are ignored in favour of a quote from Pride and Prejudice - "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading." I am obviously a big fan of the sentiment and totally delighted that Jane Austen will be receiving such a well-deserved honour.

'JK Rowling Tells Story Of Alter Ego Robert Galbraith' - The Guardian

This article brings together a number of JK Rowling's FAQ answers regarding publication of new crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After reviewing the novel on Sunday, I did a bit of digging around to see what I could find out about Rowling's decision to pursue an undercover publication. That Rowling was able to convince critics and readers of the author's identity as a military man is an impressive feat - and a testament to her skill in crafting the military background of her sleuth, Cormoran Strike. I was also excited to learn that Rowling's pseudonym was derived, in part, from our shared political hero, Robert F. Kennedy (not only do I have a poster of the man on my living room wall, I also had a fish named Robert F(ish) Kennedy - proving, once again, how contemporary I like to keep things). In addition, Rowling has stated that she has already finished a sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling, confirming the hopes of many readers that the novel was to be the first in a lengthy series.

'The Bookshop Band Pen Novel Songs Inspired By Authors' - BBC

Coming to you courtesy of my friend Sarah, who brought my attention to the article, this story details the work of The Bookshop Band - three musicians who take their songwriting inspiration from novels. Created as a means of developing engagement with literature, the band have developed a substantial fanbase and are currently touring UK bookshops. The BBC article contains a short video with some clips - well worth a view!

'A Beginner's Guide To Cormac McCarthy' - Book Riot

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Cormac McCarthy's The Road - my first McCarthy novel. A little post-review digging also inspired me to give my generally non-reading father a copy of McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses for his birthday (one, as I have written inside the book, to read with the cowboy boots on). This article by Cassandra Neace over at Book Riot is a great collection of interviews and information on McCarthy, serving as a perfect Beginner's Guide to the author and his work.


This week's theme is bookmarks. As I have said before, I collect bookmarks with true inattention. I am constantly finding them dotted around my flat, falling out of bags and cupboards, and under cushions. Yet, when I need one, it is as if every bookmark on earth has vanished - leaving me with no choice but to use whatever is near-to-hand. Perhaps if I were to indulge in one of these amazing creations, I would be a little better at keeping track...although, I wouldn't count on it.

'The Shire Map Bookmark' - Tie Dye Jedi

Aside from having a truly magnificent name, this seller clearly has his/her priorities right. Not only is the bookmark brilliant, it would be a great resource in case of sudden location confusion in Middle Earth.

'Jane Austen Bookmarks' - CastleOnTheHill

These are unbelievably cute. Given that the characters are hand-painted, they are some truly professional-looking pieces.

'Sherlock & John Bookmark Set' - BethyDesigns

Benedict Cumberbatch in bookmark form. Need I say more?

And to our final business item...


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Literary Excursion: Shaw's Corner

It has been a while since I last managed a Literary Excursion post. Exams, dissertation-writing, and a preponderance of shifts at Knebworth House have left me with limited time to venture out into the world. Fortunately, a bit of glorious weather (and the fact that George Bernard Shaw's home is just 10 minutes down the road) provoked me to indulge in a trip.

Front view of Shaw's Corner

Known as Shaw's Corner, this is the house inhabited by the Irish playwright and novelist  George Bernard Shaw from 1906, for a little over 40 years. Having decided to leave the house to the National Trust in his will, it is now open to the public - preserved as it was when he occupied the place (although his wife's belongings have, at her request, been removed from view).

Garden view of Shaw's Corner - and some blue sky!!!!!

Shaw is perhaps best known for his plays, with Pygmalion serving as the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. As a co-founder of the London School of Economics, where I am currently wrapping up my Masters, I also have a lot of personal interest in his work and political activities. The fact that Shaw's Corner offers a relatively untouched reflection of Shaw's life makes it a valuable and fascinating destination for fans.

Shaw's Study

I would apologise for the awful photography - but it is a given by now.

Shaw's Writing Shed - it rotates to avoid that rare UK sun-glare.

I have spent quite a number of previous posts highlighting my love for the National Trust. Avoiding too much repetition on that score, I will simply say that the Trust has done a fantastic job with Shaw's Corner. To walk in the footsteps of a literary hero is truly a privilege, but to enjoy a visit to his or her amazingly preserved home is another experience entirely. Shaw's Corner is a beautiful house in a perfect setting - the village of Ayot St Lawrence is one of the most typically English that I have visited. That Shaw was able to write his most popular works in this place in unsurprising. So, for a true insight into literary genius, a visit to Shaw's Corner is something you cannot beat.

"This is my dell and this my dwelling
Their charm so far beyond my telling,
That though in Ireland is my birthplace
This home shall be my final earthplace."

- George Bernard Shaw (Rhyming Guide to Ayot St Lawrence)

Monday, 22 July 2013

Monday Musing

Happy Monday!

Continuing on yesterday's J.K. Rowling theme, here's a quote to get you going for the week. Enjoy!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

For the past week, the literary world has been possessed by the news that J.K. Rowling secretly published a book earlier this year, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Choosing to do so in order to escape the inevitable, and often biased, scrutiny that accompanies her publications, The Cuckoo's Calling ends a year of debate regarding Rowling's hint that she might dip into the world of crime fiction. When the news broke, I had no desperate desire to rush out and buy the book. While I am a big fan of crime fiction, and a devotee of the Harry Potter series, I figured that The Cuckoo's Calling was something I would get around to reading eventually (most likely once in paperback). But one bookshop trip later and in need of a break from the massive tome that is currently weighing me down (Dostoevsky's Demons - 700 pages of intense concentration), I found myself picking up J.K. Rowling's latest surprise. This was Friday afternoon and the book was finished one day later. The reviews have not been wrong.

The Cuckoo's Calling introduces us to private detective and war veteran, Cormoran Strike. After losing a leg in Afghanistan, Strike has chosen to employ his considerable investigative and deductive talents by running his own agency. But under serious financial strain, he is facing impending failure. As the book opens, however, Cormoran is offered a potential lifeline in the form of a new and wealthy client. This client is John Bristow, brother of the supermodel Lula Landry who fell to her death from her apartment balcony. Disputing the police decision to write the tragedy off as suicide, Bristow employs Strike to investigate the case as murder. Strike works to unravel the mystery surrounding Lula's death, pursuing witnesses and suspects across London, alongside his newly-employed secretary, Robin Ellacott. The investigation throws them into the world of drug dealers, fashion designers, and wealth, where affairs and manipulation abound. As Strike gets closer to the truth, it becomes clear that both self-interest and cruelty provide the foundations for this tragic crime.

I was truly unsure what to expect when I picked up The Cuckoo's Calling. Not yet having made it to The Casual Vacancy, I had no familiarity with Rowling's work outside of Harry Potter. The strange disappointment that seemed to surround The Casual Vacancy had left me determined to preserve my impression of Rowling's skill by generally staying away from her post-Potter novels. Whether or not The Casual Vacancy deserved the critiques it received, The Cuckoo's Calling lays all concerns to rest. It is a novel that shows J.K. Rowling at her best, a perfect example of her position as one of the greatest contemporary storytellers.

"It was nearly eight before he returned to the office. This was the hour when he found London most loveable; the working day over, her pub windows were warm and jewel-like, her streets thrummed with life, and the indefatigable permanence of her aged buildings, softened by the street lights, became strangely reassuring. We have seen plenty like you, they seemed to murmur soothingly, as he limped along Oxford Street carrying a boxed-up camp bed. Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his. Walking wearily past closing shops, while the heavens turned indigo above him, Strike found solace in vastness and anonymity."

Whatever your opinion on J.K. Rowling as an author, she is undeniably masterful in her attention to plot and pacing. The Harry Potter series oozes mystery, with clues woven throughout the seven books. That Rowling delights in teasing the reader with seemingly inconsequential details and hints makes the brilliance of The Cuckoo's Calling unsurprising. It is a fantastically crafted mystery, absolutely reminiscent of Agatha Christie's works in structure and development. Rowling's turn-of-phrase retains the breeziness that makes her novels so effortlessly readable, but her compelling descriptions offer consistently tangible detail.

The Cuckoo's Calling also continues Rowling's trend of creating refreshingly flawed characters. The novel abounds with a remarkable array of personalities, all of whom are comprehensively fleshed-out. In this way, Rowling avoids the superficiality that plagues so many books of the genre - where character development is completely subordinated to plot. Achieving a balance between the two is unbelievably difficult, but Rowling manages it with ease. While I did feel that a couple of characters became a little too caricatured, the numerous social and cultural representations that the novel brings together make it somewhat understandable.

Aside from the brilliant plot and the preponderance of multidimensional (and thoroughly human) characters, The Cuckoo's Calling is driven by its sleuth, Cormoran Strike. For me, Strike stands apart from other detectives by bringing together two characteristics that are virtually impossible to find, existing together, in the genre: (1) He possesses deductive abilities that are remarkable but by no means surpassing human understanding; and, (2) He is flawed, but in a believable and likeable way. While I love the crime genre, it is rarely the case that I find the central character appealing - their abilities are either inhuman, detaching the whole plot from reality (as per Sherlock Holmes), or they possess exaggerated flaws that render the reader unable to develop a real relationship with the character (as per Hercule Poirot). These book remain enjoyable for their plots, but lack that extra level of investment that grips the reader from start to finish.

Strike is a superbly crafted character, serving as further proof of Rowling's skill in developing relatable and believable personalities. His military past and current status as something of a down-and-out are expected to garner no sympathy, yet add some complexity to his motivations. That he is skilled is undeniable, yet the reader is never left feeling cheated with regards to the effort involved in his deductions or the methods employed.

"The friction between the end of Strike's amputated leg and the prosthesis was becoming more painful with every step as he headed towards Kensington Gore. Sweating a little in his heavy overcoat, while a weak sun made the park shimmer in the distance, Strike asked himself whether the strange suspicion that had him in its grip was anything more than a shadow moving in the depths of a muddy pool: a trick of the light, an illusory effect of the wind-ruffled surface. Had these minute flurries of black silt been flicked up by a slimy tail, or were they nothing but meaningless gusts of algae-fed gas? Could there be something lurking, disguised, buried in the mud, for which other nets had trawled in vain?"

The Cuckoo's Calling is a resounding success for J.K. Rowling. I fully believe that the crime genre is one of the hardest for an author to explore with true skill. But Rowling is clearly more than up to the task. Her debut crime novel is a testament to her abilities and certainly lays any doubts regarding her post-Potter success to rest. Here's hoping for many more to come.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Just For Fun Friday

"Got to me mickey, found me way up the apples, put on me whistle and the bloody dog went. It was me trouble telling me to fetch the teapots."

Translation: "Got to my house (mickey mouse), found my way up the stairs (apples and pears), put on my suit (whistle and flute) when the phone (dog and bone) rang. It was my wife (trouble and strife) telling me to get the kids (teapot lids)."

WHAT IN THE WORLD? Well, today my friends, we are embarking upon a new kind of education. Language is, after all, a funny thing. So in this Just For Fun Friday, we consider perhaps the most extreme of local language oddities - Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Cockney Rhyming Slang is a dialect that has its origins in the East End of London. Used to varying degrees today (but with a number of words now found in standard English conversation), it has been popularised by films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - and basically anything that contains Jason Statham. Having grown up on the timeless BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, my love for this fantastic linguistic construction will never die. Today, I share with you some of my favourite words/phrases for everyday use and ask that you help me in making Cockney Rhyming Slang a global phenomenon.

Cockney Rhyming Slang: A Beginner's Guide
The word(s) in brackets indicates standard usage in conversation - typically dropping the second word of the phrase.

Alone = Tod Sloan ('On your tod')
Arse = Khyber Pass ('Khyber')
Believe = Adam and Eve
Coat = Weasel and Stoat ('Weasel')
Curry = Ruby Murray ('Ruby')
Deaf = Mutt and Jeff ('Mutton')
Eyes = Mince Pies ('Mincies')
Face = Boat Race ('Boat')
Fake = Sexton Blake ('Sexton')
Feet = Plates of Meat ('Meat')
Gravy = Army and Navy ('Army')
Hair = Barnet Fair ('Barnet')
Head = Loaf of Bread ('Loaf')
It's all gone wrong = It's all gone Pete Tong
Look = Butcher's Hook ('Butchers')
Money = Bread and Honey ('Bread')
Mouth = North and South
Neck = Gregory Peck ('Gregory')
Phone = Dog and Bone
Talk = Rabbit and Pork ('Rabbit')
Tea = Rosie Lee ('Rosie')
Teeth = Hampstead Heaths ('Hampsteads')
Thief = Tea Leaf
Tired (Knackered) = Cream Crackered

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Review: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A few weeks ago, I received an email asking for travel book recommendations. Hardly surprising given that summer is undoubtedly the season for spur of the moment backpacking trips. I empathise completely with the itchy feet syndrome - a depleting bank account is all that prevents me from taking myself off to some unknown location. Travel books are a fantastic resource for those of us lacking the time and/or financial supplies to embark upon our own journeys. They also offer a remarkable insight into the various dimensions associated with travel, as well as providing an opportunity to add to our expanding 'To Visit' lists. While I have been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively in Europe and the US, there are so many more places that I cannot wait to explore. In the meantime, however, it is to the travel writers that I turn - for vicarious living of the best kind. With a fairly extensive list of travel reading recommendations, honing in on my favourites is problematic. Of all that I have read, however, one stands out as the funniest and most insightful - Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

"I went now to Chancery Lane and caught an Underground train. I do like the Underground. There's something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It's a little world of its own down there, with its own strange noises and oily smells. Even when you've descended so far into the earth that you've lost your bearings utterly and wouldn't be in the least surprised to pass a troop of blackened miners coming off shift, there's always the rumble and tremble of a train passing somewhere on an unknown line even further below. And it all happens in such orderly quiet: all these thousands of people passing on stairs and escalators, stepping on and off crowded trains, sliding off into the darkness with wobbling heads, and never speaking, like characters from Night of the Living Dead."

After living in the UK for almost 20 years, Bill Bryson made the decision to return to his American homeland - largely explained as the result of reading that "3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that his people needed him." Before departing his adopted home, however, Bryson decided to take a farewell trip around Britain. It is this trip that Notes from a Small Island details. Visiting those places that hold particularly poignant memories or serve as important landmarks for the UK, Bryson circles the island, determined to account for the peculiarities that inform the British character and made him fall in love with the place.

Notes from a Small Island is one of my favourite books and typically features on any list of non-fiction recommendations. It is accessible to all - an account that will be enjoyed by those for whom Britain is home, as well as those who have nothing more than a passing familiarity with the UK (or impressions based purely on watching reruns of Downton Abbey). Bryson is able to bridge this gap through his own experience, as an outsider who has come to understand those characteristics so exclusive to the British population.

"What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Lord Chancellor to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a naval hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please, Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possible have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardener's Question Time, and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course. How easily we lose sight of all this."

Bryson is a master of the art of travel writing. His style is completely devoid of pretension - he writes as he talks and his humour oozes from the pages. While much of the book speaks to his opinions and personal experience, it is also hugely informative. As a Brit, I was surprised by how much I was able to learn about the UK. For anyone looking to gain some knowledge about Britain, out of interest or perhaps with a view to visiting, Notes from a Small Island serves as a fantastic resource. It delivers on facts but consistently balances these with the cultural and experiential insights that make for top travel writing.

And for those of us lucky enough to actually be British, the book delivers something more. It gives us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves (something at which we are actually pretty accomplished) while also reminding us of just how lucky we are. 

"I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is far more beautiful and interesting than Paris, if you ask me, and more lively than anywhere but New York - and even New York can't touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theatres, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world. And it has more congenial small things - incidental civilities you might call them - than any other city I know: cheery red pillar boxes, drivers who actually stop for you on pedestrian crossings, lovely forgotten churches with wonderful names like St Andrews by the Wardrobe and St Giles Cripplegate...What other great city would trouble to put blue plaques on houses to let you know what famous person once lived there or warn you to look left or right before stepping off the kerb? I'll tell you. None."

Now, don't get me wrong, there is plenty of critical observation in this book. But what you must understand in reading Notes from a Small Island is the extent to which we British look upon ourselves and our country with a hugely pessimistic eye. One need only observe the determination with which we stuck to predictions of an Andy Murray-Wimbledon-failure to understand the extent of our self-criticism. Quite where this comes from, I am not sure. But it means that we take some reminding of how good we have it here. For this reason, Notes from a Small Island is unique in its ambition. I do not believe that this was written, as most travel writing is, to investigate and recommend travel options. It is not even really a reflection on the travel experience. Rather, it is a cultural narrative. After two decades in the UK, Bryson offers Notes from a Small Island as his parting gift to us. To remind us that, while there may be areas of British culture and history that deserve critique, we remain a place of unique character and heritage. We have much to celebrate. We did, after all, give the world Marmite.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Weekly Reader

Hello my literary lovelies!

I hope that you are all having a wonderful week. It's hard to believe that we are already halfway through July. After months of complaining about the cold, the entire British population has, true to form, turned to moaning about the heat. No dispelling of stereotypes to be found here, friends. Here's hoping that you are all finding more success in dealing with the weather, wherever you happen to be living.

Top Stories

'JK Rowling's Crime Novel Becomes Bestseller' - The Guardian

If you have not already heard the news about JK Rowling's subterfuge, I can only assume that you are living in a Harry Potter-style cupboard-under-the-stairs. JK Rowling has once again astounded the literary world, with the revelation that she is the author behind the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo's Calling, released in April, was Galbraith's debut crime novel, selling just 1,500 copies. Since Rowling's responsibility for the book has come to light, it has jumped straight onto bestseller lists. Hardly a surprise. Having met with critical acclaim at the time of its release (and while Galbraith's identity was still concealed), The Cuckoo's Calling serves as something of a response to those disappointed with The Casual Vacancy

'3 Steps To Reading Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger' - Book Riot

This is one of the best book-related articles that I have read in a while. Following on from a report that the average American reads just four books a year (I cannot express quite how depressed this makes me), Peter Damien outlines tactics for more consistent and involved reading: don't do all your reading in bed; find your best format; carve out your reading time, then protect it. I think that each of these three points are extremely well made and, in my experience, prove absolutely true for enhancing the enjoyment and volume of reading achieved. For me, carving out reading time is an absolute necessity. I completely understand the desire to spend the evening in front of the TV, and it is an occupation that I indulge in frequently. But, if you want to get through a good number of books, you absolutely must turn over some of your 'passive activity' time. While I will never be a 300 book a year reader, my substantial annual book average is entirely the result of some daily book-devoted time.

'The Top 10 Literary Works About Ancestors' - The Guardian

Guardian Books excel in the production of 'Top 10' lists on various themes. This one struck me as a little random but, as someone who appreciates a good bit of history, I applaud the thought. With a focus on English culture, these 10 books are chosen for their reflection on human inheritance. Several of them are books that I certainly would have chosen myself. I am sure that those familiar with the Jarndyce v Jarndyce mind-haze of Bleak House would agree that its place on this list is well earned!

Top Events

'Three Men In A Boat' 26 July - Knebworth House

You may recall my review of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat a couple of weeks ago. Inspired by the upcoming event at my place of work, I threw myself into this classic with enthusiasm. On Friday 26 July, we are playing host to Keith Baldwin as he reads the book aloud in the Banqueting Hall. If you are Knebworth-way and are literary-minded, it promises to be a fantastic evening (complete with Pimms and fruit tarts). Plus, if you enter promotional code TMB13 on the website you will be able to get tickets at a reduced price - £15 rather than the full £20. And, as if that wasn't enough, you will also get to see me hanging around looking helpful. What a bonus!

Top In Book Fetish

This week's theme sees us explore the joys of literary-themed tote bags. It is no secret that I am in LOVE with book-related bags, and am accruing a pretty substantial collection. And what is The Book Habit for if not to share my strange obsessions with a global audience?

'Mr Darcy Proposal Pride And Prejudice Tote Bag' - Rachel Walter

This requires NO explanation. My two great loves combined.*

* Mum, if you're reading this, birthday list.

'Mr Darcy Tote Bag' - The British Library

See above. Quite possibly the best tote bag I ever seen.*

* Seriously, take the hint.

'Keep Calm And Read On Tote Bag' - Strand Books

The highlight of my 6 month stint in New York was undoubtedly the discovery of the Strand Bookstore, thanks to my fantastic friends (shout out to Katie and Sarah!). Other than literally miles of fabulous books, the Strand also offers a collection of amazing totes - of which the above is one of my favourites.

'Alice In Wonderland Tote Bag' - Rachel Walter

I did not purposefully set out to feature the above seller twice. But she is clearly a master of the literary tote bag. This one is super fantastic.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Monday Musing

Well, what a day it has been. I am now officially minus one tooth and in the throes of post-tooth removal pain. Fortunately, I can at least enjoy the amazing half-chipmunk look that I am currently sporting. To aid me on the path of post-op recovery, I have thrown myself into finding a suitably inspiring Monday Musing. Success!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Just For Fun Friday - Literary Pick-Up Lines

The Book Habit is about more than just book reviews. It is a celebration of literary lifestyle. For those of us who spend 80% of our time with our heads stuck in books, social situations can undoubtedly present a strange array of obstacles. I still find it personally confusing as to why clubs have somehow usurped Pride and Prejudice- style dances. Yet, there are ways to reconcile our two worlds, bringing literary obsession in-line with harsh reality. For instance, unbeknownst to my friends (until now), my life advice is typically drawn from the fictional experience of book-based acquaintances. A convenient way to: (1) sound like I know what I'm talking about; and (2) appear to move in fairly extensive social circles. This post, however, comes in the form of assistance for romantic life. Because there is no way that a good literary pick-up line can fail.* You're welcome, readers. You're welcome.

*Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for any physical violence that may befall you should you attempt to use any of the following. I do, however, accept full responsibility (and flowers) for any success.
  1. You're like a dictionary. You add meaning to my life.
  2. You are the green light at the end of Daisy's dock.
  3. I don't have a library card, but do you mind if I check you out?
  4. You can call me Henry, baby. I'm very Thoreau.
  5. I've got a great reading light next to my bed.
  6. You're like a Balrog - smokin' hot.

And, for the Harry Potter aficionados out there...
  1. If you were a Dementor, I'd become a criminal just to get your kiss.
  2. Are you the master of the EXPELLIARMUS spell? Because your smile is disarming.
  3. My name may not be Luna, but I sure know how to Lovegood.
  4. My love for you burns like a dying phoenix.
  5. Going to bed? Mind if I Slytherin?
  6. You must be my Horcrux, because you complete me.