Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The 5 Best Places To Learn About Literature Online (For Free!)

As most regular readers of The Book Habit already know, I'm someone who needs to be constantly learning. I have always thrived as a student, whether in an official capacity or through picking up knowledge in my spare time. It's probably why I ended up following my academic career to its natural peak as a PhD student and ultimately decided to leave when I realised that it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. Even my hobbies tend to be dictated by the space that they provide to pick up new skills. I took up sewing a couple of years ago and have worked hard to acquire knowledge as much as I can - from online courses to a whole separate sewing blog (you can find me at Sew for Victory, if you're craftily inclined), it's given me an entirely new area for skill acquisition.

With my reading habit, I'm similarly attentive to any opportunities to learn. I've always been someone who digs up all available resources on authors and books. I just love absorbing information that broadens my experience. Since leaving the PhD, I've also had much more time on my hands. I've filled it, in large part, with lots of free literature courses. The internet is an incredible resource for those of us who are constantly seeking to learn more. From my very extensive experience of combing the web for free courses and lectures, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of my favourites. These resources are all free and well-curated, so you can be sure that the information is high quality!

I love Future Learn. I've taken a truly astounding number of their free courses and have yet to be disappointed by the breadth and quality of anything to which I've given time. Not only is there a truly incredible number of courses on offer, the pre-enrollment information gives a clear indication of the general time commitment. Courses offer a variety of written information, video lectures, and assignments. Assignments are given feedback by other students and you also have the option of providing feedback of your own. It's a great opportunity to gauge your own understanding of the material and interact with others! That said, courses do vary in their format. Assignments aren't a part of every course. Some will have set readings that may amount to full books or extracts that are provided by the course creators. This information is usually presented very clearly at the start of the course, so you will have time to get to the library and understand the sort of time commitment expected.

It's important to bear in mind that, unlike other e-learning websites, Future Learn courses are not available on archive. So courses are released and run for set periods of time, during which you have the chance to enroll and participate. Once you're enrolled, you have a set period for course completion. It's a good idea to look over the calendar of upcoming courses - you can enroll in advance and make a note in your diary of when the course content will be released. I've taken many excellent courses via Future Learn that tend to be available on an annual basis. The calendar of courses changes constantly so it is definitely worth keeping an eye on the future course selection! 

As always, courses are free. However, you have the option of paying a set fee to 'upgrade'. Upgrading gives you unrestricted access to the content (so that you have it forever, rather than having to complete within a set period of time) and a certificate of completion to prove that you've taken the course!

Course Highlights:

- Literature and Mental Health (not currently available but you can set up email notifications. This is my personal favourite course!)

edX is an amazing resource for incredibly high-quality courses. Available from the likes of Harvard and Darmouth, you are truly learning from some of the world's best institutions. One great advantage that edX has over Future Learn is its archived courses. You have the option of participating while courses are 'live', in which case you have access to current assignments, feedback, and the ability to interact with other students. However, once the 'live' period is over, courses are archived for enrollment at any future points. This means that there are far more options available to interested students, albeit with less interactivity.

As with Future Learn, courses are provided in a variety of formats - written information, video lectures, and assignments. There is typically required reading, some of which is given in extracts as part of the course. For courses focussed on older literature, links will often be provided to open access sources online so you won't need to worry about hunting out novels from the library or bookshop!

I've been so impressed with the courses that I've taken via edX. They tend to be more challenging and demanding than those available via Future Learn, but I've found that they also provide a much deeper insight. If you're looking for courses more akin to what you would expect from a university-level literature course, edX is definitely the place for you! As with Future Learn, courses are available for free. However, you can 'upgrade' for a fee that will provide you with a certificate of completion at the end of the course! This upgrade is only available for 'live' courses. 

Some courses are also available in other languages. So if you prefer to learn in French, Spanish, or otherwise, there's a good chance that you will find a course that suits you!

Course Highlights:

- Hamlet's Ghost (available now)

In this case, you can go direct to the horse's mouth for a variety of Yale's most interesting literature lectures and courses. These courses include videos of lectures delivered to Yale classes, so you have access to the Yale courses exactly as they are given at the university. It is undeniable that these courses lack the fullness of those provided by Future Learn and edX. They are, after all, courses that were designed to be taken as a student at the university. However, the courses available via Open Yale Courses come with a syllabus (detailing course content more broadly, as well as reading material) and the course's video library. It's really everything you need if your goal is simply to learn.

Of course, the format of these courses means that you will not have access to assignments, feedback, or interaction with other students. Unlike Future Learn and edX, you do not 'enroll' in these courses. They're simply available via the online library for you to work through at your own pace and whenever you choose. I find this hugely appealing because it's truly devoid of any pressure. It's a great way to fill in the blanks regarding any particular literature-based knowledge, as well as to potentially accompany some new reading adventures with authors that you haven't previously read.

Course Highlights:

- The American Novel Since 1945 (available now - the lectures on Nabokov and Lolita are especially interesting!)

When it comes to literature courses, the selection via Coursera is a little harder to navigate. They aren't clearly contained under any particular discipline, so you have to dig a little bit in order to find some good courses (I've included links to some of my favourites below, however). As with Future Learn and edX, Coursera courses are provided by reputable institutions and are all incredibly high quality. They come with video lectures and written information, as well as a variety of assignments that may or may not be available depending on whether you are accessing the course for free. As with other e-learning platforms, you have the option of paying a fee to access the full course and receive a completion certificate at the end of the course.

Coursera courses are more limited to those who choose to access them without paying a fee. Some courses are available for full via free 7-day trials, but most will give you free access to the course as an audit option. This means that you will be able to view most video lectures and written content but will not be able to actively participate by communicating with others or completing assignments. So just be aware when you sign up that taking the course for free will limit your experience. In my view, however, unless you are bowled over by personal interest or looking to complete a course for professional reasons, you will get plenty of information from free access.

Course Highlights:

- Introduction to Who Wrote Shakespeare (starts 13 November 2018)

With Udemy, it is important to bear in mind that not all courses are created equal. Unlike edX and Future Learn courses, just about anyone can submit their own course content to Udemy. So not every literature course is going to be high quality, nor will they all have reputable educational institutions as their creators. Additionally, Udemy puts most of its courses - particularly those of higher quality - behind a payment wall. So keep in mind when browsing that much of what you come across will require upfront payment in order to access any of the course material.

That said, Udemy also has an excellent review system for students to leave their opinions on courses. This is a great way to filter out the lower-quality content and ensure that you are getting what you want. You also have a preview video for a general overview of course content, prior to enrollment. It is certainly worth exploring what Udemy has to offer because there are some truly excellent courses, some of which are offered for free. 

Course Highlights:

So there we have it. My favourite five sources of free literary learning online! If you have any of your own favourites to add, be sure to comment below and share your thoughts. Happy learning!

Monday, 12 November 2018

Monday Musing - 12/11/18

Recently, I've been struggling to find balance. Maybe the idea that balance is something we can ever truly find is just an illusion. It seems to me that wherever we're looking for balance - whether in work versus regular life, between different hobbies, in time spent with friends or alone - there's always going to be a skew one way or another. So perhaps what we're actually searching for is our own perfect imbalance - the kind of wavy, sometimes inconsistent juggling of competing elements that somehow works for us. Since I quit my PhD programme two years and, shortly thereafter, moved to the US, I've been in a constant battle to work out what it is that I want to do. For the first time in my life, my time is truly my own. But having that kind of unrestricted freedom is a burden in itself. I find my self constantly worrying about what I'm doing, whether it's the right thing, whether I'm doing enough of it. Finding a way to balance (or imbalance) the various jobs, hobbies, and relationships that I want to explore and enjoy is tough!

What this past couple of years has given me is the ability to acknowledge the boundaries that I'd unconsciously erected for myself - the various shoulds, shouldnts, and cants that have dictated my choices for as long as I can remember. Boundaries are a gift in that they give us the focus necessary to get things done and meet necessary goals. But they can also produce an inflexibility and lack of imagination that limits what we allow ourselves to achieve. Not everyone will have the benefit of unrestricted exploration of these boundaries. Limits created by free time, the need to make money, and family obligations are just a few of the things that distract us. However, if we learn to work with what we have, we can make boundaries - and imbalance - our friend. Although I'm very sure that I'll never be truly rid of the anxiety about what I'm not doing and whether I actually have that perfect imbalance I'm seeking, I'm definitely learning to embrace the exploration!

Friday, 9 November 2018

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

"What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory."

Most novels are, in one way or another, about loss. The loss of innocence, youth, love - all convey the most universal and human experience of learning to live with the inherent transience of everything around us. Writing about loss is, therefore, perhaps the easiest way for an author to ensure that his or her work is immediately relatable. Yet the tremendous body of literature that already grapples with the topic of loss - whether in death or something more insubstantial - makes it incredibly difficult to explore the experience in a way that is both unique and creative. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've spent a good part of this year reading books that deal explicitly with loss. From the poignant grief portrayed in Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen to the eerie supernaturalism of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, there are many ways in which literature can explore grief, absence, and the process of rebuilding in the wake of these experiences. Yet no book has navigated the subject with the gravity, raw emotion, and originality of George Saunders's debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo is built on the foundation of historical myth. Following the death of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie Lincoln, of typhoid fever on February 20th, 1862, it was reported that Lincoln had returned several times to the crypt in which his son's body was temporarily entombed. Although it cannot be certain what actually occurred during these visitations, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the possibility that Lincoln removed his son's body, held it, and spoke with it. As morbid a picture as this paints, the skill of the novel rests in its ability to explore the weightiness of grief with true empathy and beauty. The novel alternates in structure to achieve this end. Chapters are told alternately in a jigsaw of facts retrieved from historical sources (works by the like of Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as first hand historical accounts), and as a chaos of conversation between the ghosts that Saunders imagines to populate the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln is entombed. The story follows the history of these ghosts, all of whom have confined themselves to a purgatorial state, in denial of their own deaths and convinced that they are instead suffering from temporary sickness. As Willie awakens to find himself in the graveyard, in the company of his living father, he must grapple with what it means to consign himself to a half-life as a ghost in the world, invisible to those he loves.

"None of it was real; nothing was real. Everything was real; inconceivably real, infinitely dear. These and all things started as nothing, latent with a vast energy-broth, but then we named them, and loved them, and, in this way, brought them forth. And now we must lose them. I send this out to you, dear friends, before I go, in this instantaneous thought-burst, from a place where time slows and then stops and we may live forever in a single instant."

The uniqueness of Lincoln in the Bardo is immediately apparent in its structure. I came to the novel with no prior knowledge and it took me a few chapters to work out what was going on. It was not immediately clear to me why Saunders would have chosen to relate the historical background of Willie's death - and the context of the Civil War in which the event occurred - in the form of extracts from historical sources. In my view, however, this method helped to deliver the emotional punch of the chapters related by the cemetery ghosts. Historical facts, often inconsistent and emotionally cool, bear little relation to the raw experience of loss. The heaviness of Lincoln's grief, presented alongside the confusion and fear of the ghosts living in the cemetery, is palpable. It is almost unimaginable in its humanity. Grief of this nature is something at which so many of us will refuse to look directly.

As such, the lifeblood of this book and its emotional momentum are undoubtedly attached to the graveyard scenes in which the ghosts converse. Saunders's lyrical prose and beautifully realised characters are entertaining, amusing, and infuriating. Attempting to tell a story through the words of such a diverse array of voices is no mean feat. The chapters in which the ghosts speak are truly choral and, once you allow yourself to sink into the writing, the interruptions and back-and-forths of the conversations are fascinating. While some of the death stories related are amusing (the physical manifestation of the ghosts represents their manner of death, to often comic effect), there are many that are equally as heart-rending and steeped in the setting's historical context. One character, for example, relates the life and death of an African American girl, a ghost who cannot speak: 

"What was done to her was done to her many times, by many. What was done to her could not be resisted, was not resisted, sometimes was resisted, which resulted, sometimes, in her being sent away to some far worse place, other times in that resistance simply being forcibly overcome (by fist, knee, board-strike etc.). What was done to her was done and done. Or just done once. What was done to her affected her not at all, affected her very much, drove her to the nervous shakes, drove her to hateful speech, drove her to leap off the Cedar Creek Bridge, drove her to this obstinate silence."

Moments such as this make Lincoln in the Bardo an oftentimes uncomfortable read. Death and grief are often hard for us to consider directly, when not immediately confronted with them through our own experiences. The diversity of the voices that Saunders employs forces us to expand our understanding by considering, in intimate detail, the choices of his characters. This is something at which the author is clearly incredibly skilled. The novel's impressive characterisation makes Lincoln in the Bardo feel extraordinarily expansive for its short 343 pages. That the characters have chosen to live their deaths in an eternal purgatory, denying death to the point of terming coffins 'sick boxes', makes their stories even more interesting. The word 'bardo' is itself taken from Tibetan Buddhism. It refers to the purgatorial state that exists between life and death. In the case of the novel, therefore, 'bardo' is harping directly to the refusal of the dead to move on. The ghosts are attached to life for many reasons and the explorations of the fears these characters experience, even in death, are some of the novel's most profoundly human moments.

While the constant supernatural chatter can feel, at times, slightly repetitive, the momentum that the novel gathers towards its final pages is truly sublime. Lincoln must reconcile his personal grief with the knowledge that he is sending so many American sons into battle and to their deaths. Although the novel is told through the lens of one man's grief, this historical backdrop, as well as the inclusion of its supernatural chorus, widens the scope of what Lincoln in the Bardo is able to achieve. It is a meditation on compassion and soul-wrenching humanity. It takes a peculiar historical moment and translates it into the most universal of all human experiences. This is something upon which Saunders has reflected: 

"You always hope that a book will lead you somewhere you didn't plan to go. And in this one, it was kind of unrelenting in leading me to think about that strange conundrum we're in here. We seem to be born to love - that seems to be what we do naturally and what we crave to do. And then all along, we sort of know that everything is conditional. So how do you, in this world, live joyfully and productively in the fact of those two truths?" (NPR Interview)

Whether Lincoln in the Bardo answers this question is uncertain. As Saunders himself goes on to express, denial is not something that Lincoln can afford. Yet, many of us continue to be stuck between these two distinct and frictious realities. What the novel does achieve, however, is a reminder of the indelible mark left behind through love. I can imagine that many will struggle to read this book. The structure and slow progression ensure that this is not a novel driven by its plot. It is, however, easily one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. Its critical acclaim only affirms the brilliance that Saunders has achieved in his first step away from short story form. Lincoln in the Bardo reads as a homage to both those lost and those losing. We all have something to gain from learning to better confront the realities of life as temporary beings. How we navigate this is truly up to us, but reading novels like Lincoln in the Bardo will surely equip us to better appreciate the connection that we all share through life's transience. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Literary Lifestyles: The Writing Habits of Charles Dickens

Is it possible to really love a book without wanting to know something about the person that produced it? For me, the two are heavily intertwined. I have a fascination with authors and the background, skills, and habits that have allowed them to make such incredible art. Whether there are patterns in the way that great authors set about writing - their routines, planning, methods for combatting writer's block etc. - is something that I've often wondered. In an effort to uncover whether there is any truth to this, while also learning more about some of my favourite authors, I've decided to dig a little deeper into the lives of our most celebrated writers. Since autumn will, for me, be eternally associated with Charles Dickens, I couldn't think of a better place to start. Whether you consider Dickens to be one of history's greatest authors or the peril of every teenage English student, we can certainly agree that his prodigious production of highly esteemed literature is truly incredible. His prolific popularity during the Victorian era and his ongoing estimation as one of the greatest novelists of all time make his writing habits all the more interesting. So exactly what were Dickens's literary secrets?

Questions surrounding the routines of great authors are always among the most fascinating. While all authors will have a different approach to writing - often dependent on other life commitments, as well as their personal work ethic - understanding the habits of an author is typically quite revealing. Dickens's own writing routine was heavily influenced by the demands of his deadlines. Publishing his novels in installment form via periodicals and magazines, Dickens was required to have multiple chapters ready for publication at very short intervals. This type of publication offered a number of advantages, including the ability to gauge the audience's reaction as each new installment was released. However, having new chapters required on a monthly or weekly basis also places inevitable strain on an author's creative output. To meet such an intense publication schedule, Dickens's work routine was invariable. He kept to the same hours every day, without change. As his eldest son noted: "No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy."

As such, Dickens treated writing much like any day job. He woke up at 7am, had breakfast at 8am, and was sat down to work in his study by 9am. He would work without pause until 2pm, when he would stop for lunch and embark on a daily three hour walk around London. These walks were integral to Dickens's success as an author. Not only did they provide him with space to muse on his writing and consider future developments, they were also key to Dickens's unrivalled knowledge of the city. Dickens grew up in London and had always walked its streets. Moving through the city on a daily basis, among people of all kinds, equipped him to represent London at its most authentic and raw. Following his walk, Dickens would return home for dinner at 6pm, spend an evening relaxing with his family and friends, and be in bed by midnight. It was a strict routine that allowed him to produce work at an impressive rate. Dickens never varied his hours, even when inspiration failed to strike. He could write thousands of words in a morning, or sometimes nothing at all. But his routine did not change.

Dickens's strict adherence to a daily writing schedule was mirrored by his formulaic approach to planning his novels. Publishing in serial form makes a novel very difficult to plan in whole. Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers, took 20 months to publish in full. It was released in monthly installments from March 1836 to October 1837 and comprised 57 chapters in total. Although this was certainly one of Dickens's longer works, it perfectly represents the difficulty involved in making plans for a novel's progression when published over such a lengthy period. Yet planning remained important for Dickens since serial publication prevents an author from returning to previous chapters in order to make changes or rearrange scenes. In order to ensure that he was prepared at the start of each new serial, Dickens utilised 'Plan Sheets' and working notes as a means to keep track of his story. The use of Plan Sheets was a particularly detailed process. Michael Slater describes Dickens's planning process in his biography, Charles Dickens:

"For each number [monthly installment] he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called 'Mems'. These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as 'Yes', 'No', or 'Not yet' added later)...On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter, with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue..."

What Dickens used, then, was not a detailed plan for every aspect of his stories but rather a rough outline of key events, characters, and plot points. This was important, as it allowed him to ensure that plot progression was planned at large, whilst also permitting alterations as feedback was received from his audience. These Plan Sheets were further supplemented by pages of working notes in which Dickens outlined his larger structure, developed salient character details, and took note of any symbolism that he particularly wished to incorporate.

Dickens's writing habits were broadly reflective of his literary demands. He did not have the luxury of taking his time and making rounds of edits. Instead, he was required to ensure that his creativity could operate on a stringent schedule. His strict daily regime and structured approach to planning were necessities in ensuring that he could keep up with deadlines, whilst still making time to find inspiration in his London surroundings. Whether or not you enjoy Dickens's works, his ability to publish in serial form whilst still ending up with a coherent and well-structured novel at the end of the process was truly impressive. Although modern authors might not require the same definite attention to daily habits, there is surely something to be learnt from Dickens's remarkable abilities and the ways in which his lifestyle facilitated their expression.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Monday Musing - 29/10/18

I do love writing these Monday Musing posts. For one, they help to set me up for the week ahead. I really enjoy looking through literary quotes as a place for inspiration and understanding. Books have always been my primary source of comfort and the lens through which I learnt to navigate the world. In that sense, the benefits that I derive from reading really haven't changed over the past 30 years. Although I'm not one for defacing my books (even if I'm the only one who'll ever read them), I do make an effort to record any particular quotes or passages that speak to me in the moment. One benefit of this is that I have a sort of life journal, recorded totally in the form of extracts from books that I have read. It's kind of amazing to trace the course of my life, my preoccupations, and my emotions according to the passages from literature that meant something to me at the time of reading. There's definitely a pattern to the phrases or paragraphs that I take away with me and the way that they reflect whatever I was going through at the time. This is a pretty strong argument, I think, for re-reading books that you love because it is surely the case that you will extract something different from them every time.

My second reason for writing these posts is related to all of this. I enjoy having an abbreviated weekly chronicle of my life recorded here. Part of why I love writing on The Book Habit is that it provides me with a space to talk about an aspect of my life that has carried me through so much. Through depression and anxiety, I've never stopped reading. Across multiple qualifications and a career change, books have always accompanied me. And on many transatlantic moves, novels have served as my main source of grounding and comfort. Although I hope that I write posts that are interesting to other people, I think sites like this mean very little unless they are authentic and personal. Reviewing books as primary content makes it hard to keep to this line because, as much as my interpretation of a novel is grounded in my own experience, I'm trying to universalise the reading process and let you know whether I think you'll also enjoy the book. Monday Musing posts give me an opportunity to personalise my reading habits and hopefully help you to know me a little bit better. At the very least, it's a chance to explore some beautiful quotes from literature, and make a direct connection between the way that books speak to us and the messages that we might benefit from carrying forward into our own lives.

With that, this week's quote is one of my favourites from literature. As always, please feel free to comment on this post with any of your own favourite literary quotes!

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Best Endings In Literature: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've recently found myself preoccupied with the idea of endings. There have been a lot of them over the past two years - I left my PhD programme, I left my country. It's required acceptance of the fact that goodbyes and new beginnings often go hand-in-hand. These reflections have intertwined themselves quite naturally with the books that I've been reading. Novels about grief and loss have been a major feature of my reading patterns over the past few months - from the very human experience of displacement reflected in Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, to the raw exploration of death's finality in Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. While all of this, admittedly quite difficult, reading has left me somewhat emotionally bewildered, I'm incredibly grateful for it. Taking the time to grapple with multiple perspectives on what it means to encounter finality has been immensely useful in helping me to understand my own reaction to the numerous endings that I've encountered over recent years. Saying goodbye is no easy thing, yet we all do it on a daily basis. The very act of reading acquaints us with finality. If, like me, you've ever finished a book and felt bereft in the knowledge that it's over (looking at you Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) then you understand, even on this small scale, how an ending can make you feel.

Yet, a well-crafted ending can simultaneously leave you with a profound understanding of your own place in the world. The best literary works are those that speak to some universal human experience. This universality is how books written in the 1800s can feel relevant to us, even as we read them in a world that is so dramatically altered. While a good ending is by no means a necessity to great literature, it is typically the case that our most memorable literary experiences are with those books that perfectly encapsulate their own purpose in the final pages. Since writing my post on Monday, I've been thinking about my favourite endings in literature and wondering what exactly it is that has enabled them to make such a profound impression. Today, I wanted to write about one of my favourites - the final paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - and try to distil exactly why its ending has the impact that it does.

*While I keep all of my reviews spoiler-free, this post is obviously going to have a LOT of spoilers. If you haven't read The Great Gatsby and don't want to spoil the ending for yourself, stop reading here!*

Without reflecting on Fitzgerald's intentions with the ending of The Great Gatsby, it would be very easy to think that it is one of the most depressing and unresolved endings in literary history. We finish the book with the deaths of most of the novel's main characters, including Gatsby himself. Gatsby's death is particularly difficult to process. After a life spent surrounded by people and in pursuit of his singular dream, Gatsby dies and is laid to rest in a way that reflects the truly solitary nature of his existence: 

"A little before three the Lutheran minister arrived from Flushing, and I began to look involuntarily out the windows for other cars. So did Gatsby's father. And as the time passed and the servants came in and stood waiting in the hall, his eyes began to blink anxiously, and he spoke of the rain in a worried, uncertain way. The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took his aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn't any use. Nobody came."

With my first experience of reading The Great Gatsby, this was truly the part of the novel that impacted me the most. I think this also speaks to precisely why the novel is such an important one to read in your mid- to late-teens. It is an age lived very much in anticipation, of dreams and plans yet to be enacted or fulfilled. To my much younger self, the idea that someone could to devote themselves so singularly to the pursuit of their vision and fail so spectacularly was incredibly problematic. The lack of sincerity or real attachment on the part of the 'friends' that had surrounded Gatsby throughout his life was also a challenging turn. 

However, Gatsby's death is key to the power of the novel's ending and, particularly, the message of its final paragraphs. The Great Gatsby closes with the story's narrator, Nick Carraway, sitting on the shore and reflecting on Gatsby's life. He observes the setting: "...the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams." In Gatsby's journey, however, we are led to understand the fatalism that accompanies any dream preoccupied with rectifying or recapturing the past. His death becomes a necessary component of delivering this message - the true futility of a life lived with the past always in mind. With this, Fitzgerald delivers his closing lines, celebrated as among the best in literary history:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Interpretations vary on exactly how we should ingest this parting message. Given the trajectory of the book's final pages, many read this as a fatalistic warning against the inevitability of the way that life continually sweeps us backwards. As with Gatsby's mistake, we are all persuaded to revisit the past. However, my interpretation of these closing lines has not changed since I first read the book so many years ago. We are all condemned, by life's unstoppable flow, to living in the shadow of our memories. There is an ever-present temptation to try to do-over past mistakes, recapture past glories, and spend our time preoccupied with what should have or could have been. In the face of this, however, is the strength that it takes to continue forward, resisting the inevitable - and sometimes unstoppable - pull backwards. Gatsby's mistake, in comparison, is an obsession with the past that will not allow him to fully live in the present or work for a sustainable, unique future. 

Read in this light, it seems to me that the emptiness of the various deaths that occur at the end of The Great Gatsby is necessary. It allows Fitzgerald to pursue his diverse agendas regarding money and the American Dream (how many high school essays have been written on this topic?), whilst also giving far more strength to his closing lines. The inevitability with which Gatsby got swept away in his obsessions and with which we all end up preoccupied with our own pasts does not prevent us trying to "run faster, stretch out our arms farther." Nor does it stop us attempting to fight forward, even as life tries "ceaselessly" to sweep us back. Although interpretations vary - as they do and should with any novel - my reading of The Great Gatsby's ending is that it both universalises Gatsby's experience and encourages us in our, sometimes futile, attempts to carve a path forward for ourselves. With my current preoccupations regarding the life that I've left behind in the UK, I'm not sure that any ending in literature could speak to me more fully right now than that of Fitzgerald's masterpiece.

This is, of course, just one of many incredible endings in literature. I'd love to hear about some of your favourite literary endings! What makes them so memorable? Leave a comment on this post or catch me on Twitter, and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Monday Musing - 22/10/18

I can't believe that October is almost over. This year has just flown by, in all its glorious chaos. It has been my first full year in the US - a year of uncertainty, lots of fear, and many questions. One thing that's really surprised me about emigrating - particularly when it is done for love, rather than for the advantages of the destination - is the sheer amount of energy that adaptation takes. I'm a year and a half into living in America and I still don't feel at home.

The biggest battle is accepting the many absences and endings that accompany a decision to move country. Leaving your home often means leaving your family, friends, job, favourite haunts. It means starting over in the most complete sense. It seems appropriate that autumn - a season of endings - should find me so focussed on these thoughts. I've always been preoccupied with finality. I've moved so much since I was 16 that I have an incredibly complex relationship with the idea of permanency, making me feel both profoundly anxious and very comforted. However, the idea that anything in life is permanent is truly an illusion. Every door closes eventually, one way or another. This autumn, I'm working hard to enjoy the endings that I'm witnessing all around me, remembering that nothing is forever. New opportunities will come about - I'll make new friends, find new favourite places, know what it is to follow the progress of the seasons whilst walking on unknown streets. Endings are scary but, as with the autumn, there's also something so exquisite in the memories that accompany them.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Review: 'Killing Commendatore' by Haruki Murakami

"...sometimes in life we can't grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won't know which side we're on."

You would be forgiven for feeling a considerable amount of envy regarding Haruki Murakami's prodigious output of stories. For the depth and intricacy that often characterises his novels, he has managed to sustain a remarkable rate of publication. This is, I'm sure, largely a product of his approach to writing. Murakami always begins the writing process with no concrete plan. As he told an interviewer with The Paris Review: "When I start to write, I don't have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don't choose what kind of story it is or what's going to happen. I just wait." For most creatives, plagued by sleepless nights and hours staring at a blank screen, the ease with which Murakami applies this approach and remains capable of producing a new novel every couple of years is impressive. When I read that he would be releasing a new novel in 2018 - the English version of Killing Commendatore - I was excited but unsurprised, given his tendency to publish something new every couple of years. I have always enjoyed Murakami's niche approach to magical realism and, despite the flaws of his more recent works, find his novels immensely engaging. When I learnt that Killing Commendatore was to serve as Murakami's homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I was even more intrigued. 

Killing Commendatore follows the experiences of an unnamed narrator, whose character very much conforms to Murakami's standard trope. A portrait artist dissatisfied with his creative direction and recently separated from his wife, the narrator heads to a remote house in the mountains at Odawara. The appeal of this location lies not only in its isolation but also in the fact that its former owner, Tomohiko Amada, was a celebrated artist of traditional Japanese paintings. Now confined to a residential home, Amada's imprint is still felt throughout the house - from his impressive collection of classical music, to his artist's studio. Stumped as to his own creative direction, the narrator accidentally stumbles upon one of Amada's paintings - a painting unknown to the public and purposely hidden away. It is his most impressive work, Killing Commendatore, but its discovery sets in motion a series of increasingly bizarre and dangerous events. Into the mix steps the aloof and mysterious millionaire, Wataru Menshiki, and his unclear connection to a 13-year old girl who also resides in this remote part of Odawara. A mysterious bell ringing from the bottom of a closed pit, a two-foot tall manifestation of Killing Commmendatore's Commendatore character, and a faceless man, enter to propel the novel's increasingly surrealistic plot. The question is how these disparate parts are ultimately connected.

"But the painting titled Killing Commendatore was full of blood. Realistic blood flowing all over. Two men were fighting with heavy, ancient swords, in what seemed to be a duel. One of the men fighting was young, the other old. The young man had plunged his sword deep into the old man's chest. The young man had a thin black mustache and wore tight-fitting light-greenish clothes. The old man was dressed in white and had a lush white beard...He had dropped his sword, which had not yet struck the ground. Blood was spewing from his chest. The tip of the sword must have pierced his aorta. The blood had soaked his white clothes, and his mouth was twisted in agony."

Much of my love for Murakami's work stems from his impressive ability to blend monotonous slice-of-life details with the surreal. In fact, it is Murakami's descriptions of the everyday that are often the most celebrated aspects of his work. His relatively simplistic prose lends itself to cultivating a real sense of familiarity for the reader. Whenever I read Murakami, I find myself sinking into his writing - in a way that I can only compare with sinking into an old, particularly comfortable sofa. I am always able to trust that Murakami will entertain me and that his novels are best experienced by allowing the story, and all of its surreal turns, to simply wash over me. Killing Commendatore is no exception to this. Murakami achieves an excellent balance of comfortable reality and supernatural details. At a number of points, the plot accelerates in true suspense and I found myself unable to leave the book without reading to the incident's resolution. 

The characterisations were also, for the most part, incredibly engaging. The characters most heavily influenced by The Great Gatsby - the unnamed narrator and the millionaire Menshiki - were undoubtedly the novel's most fully-formed and believable. In Menshiki, Murakami gave himself the space to explore and develop a Gatsby-esque character, against the backdrop of contemporary Japan and modern technology. It was an interesting take and one that worked incredibly well in parallel to the narrator's own journey. The interactions between these two characters were, for me, the most engaging parts of the novel. Unsurprising to regular readers of Murakami, however, the characters were also Killing Commendatore's most flawed element. Women play a significant role in driving the plot. From the narrator's wife, whose announcement of separation sparks the narrator's journey, to the new girlfriend, whose role is to feed the narrator pieces of information about his new acquaintance, Menshiki, the female characters are fundamental to the novel's progress. However, they are also universally ill-developed and lacking in dimension. Of the female characters, the 13-year old Mariye Akikawa is afforded the most direct role in the plot's development. Her character is, however, almost entirely reduced to a preoccupation with the size of her breasts. The fact that this serves as one of the central themes of Mariye's conversations with the 36-year old narrator is uncomfortable and, as becomes clear by the end of the novel, entirely redundant. Murakami has been widely critiqued for his tendency to use female characters only in service of the momentum of his plot. Killing Commendatore confirms this propensity to reduce female characters to a plot device. This is a particular shame given the intriguing and integral nature of the female characters in Murakami's source material, The Great Gatsby.

"In the silence of the woods it felt like I could hear the passage of time, of life passing by. One person leaves, another appears. A thought flits away and another takes its place. One image bids farewell and another one appears on the scene. As the days piled up, I wore out, too, and was remade. Nothing stayed still. And time was lost. Behind me, time became dead grains of sand, which one after another gave way and vanished. I just sat there in front of the hole, listening to the sound of time dying."

What most troubles Killing Commendatore is that it is fundamentally overambitious. Reading the novel, one can appreciate the authenticity with which Murakami describes his own approach to writing - that he has no plan and waits for ideas to come to him. There is too much taking place in Killing Commendatore and too many narrative threads to follow. However, I didn't find that this impacted my reading experience until the very end of the novel. Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending of the novel left me incredibly unsatisfied. It felt hurried and very much an afterthought, attempting to tie up the many loose ends. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and would still recommend it (although not as anyone's first experience with Murakami), many of the novel's details feel like a cursory and under-explored nod to various Murakami tropes or plot necessities. The ending reads almost as a favour to the reader, who would inevitably expect and require some degree of resolution for the characters. The plot offers a similarly cursory nod to the history of WWII and Nazi occupation, without any clear necessity for the detail existing at all given that it is never fully and satisfactorily explored.

For its flaws, however, Killing Commendatore was still one of the novels that I've most enjoyed this year. I tore through it in the space of two days and have found myself reflecting on it ever since. It is, I think, relatively easy to get lost in critiques of Murakami. Not only does he have an impressive body of work against which all new novels must be compared, his work exists in a niche of its own, exacerbating our propensity to see any new publications as part of series rather than a work in their own right. It is undeniable that Murakami relies on specific tropes to develop his plots. His male characters, the theme of isolation, sex and breasts - there will always be an element of 'Murakami Bingo' with any new read. However, Murakami also does what he does better than any other author. The cosy familiarity of the lives that he describes, in juxtaposition with the jarring surreality that he introduces, are a truly remarkable example of what magical realism can achieve.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

10 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties (Part One)

For years now, I've been absolutely fascinated with the concept of bibliotherapy. I discovered it almost by accident when I came across the book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. The book delineates various ailments and the works of fiction that may serve as a cure, or a catalyst toward improvement, for each problem. Although I'm certainly not an advocate of replacing therapy and medication with reading, I am definitely intrigued by the ways in which books - and art, more generally - can help us to make changes in our lives. However, I don't believe that this is an experience confined to the direst or most extreme circumstances. A well-timed read can shift our perspective in ways that we weren't even aware we needed.

Since turning 30 last month, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how I experienced my twenties. Any decade is going to see an incredible amount of change and carry a plethora of emotions, as well as some regrets. In some respects, I wish that I had been better equipped for the chaos of those years and prepared for some of the many wake-up calls that I received over the course of the decade. Books are, to me, a huge part of this preparation. I read a lot throughout my twenties and there were so many novels that left an indelible mark on the way that I viewed the world. There are lessons that I wish I'd learnt earlier, as well as lessons that I learnt at precisely the right moment in time.

While I don't want to suggest that books offer a complete solution to the ailments that characterise life as a twenty-something, I do believe that they give us an opportunity to reflect on different aspects of what it means to be in your twenties. It is a decade of constant change - perhaps more so than any other. In an effort to reflect on the ways that I dealt most successfully with that chaos, and hopefully help those wading through the same quagmire of uncertainty, here is Part One of my list of 10 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties (listed in no particular order):

1. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover is undoubtedly D.H. Lawrence's most famous and controversial work. It follows the experiences of Lady Constance Chatterley, as she embarks on an affair with her aristocratic husband's gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Mellors offers Constance a level of physical fulfilment that she is not able to experience with her husband, who has been paralysed from the waist-down since a war injury. The novel explores the nature of relationships and what it means to be truly fulfilled. Critical to the controversy surrounding Lady Chatterley's Lover are the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters between Mellors and Constance. However, these experiences are integral to the point of the novel - that physical fulfilment is as fundamental to a successful relationship as emotional understanding.

Your twenties are, for many, a decade replete with questions about what a 'successful' relationship looks like and requires. While I'm not suggesting that we should all model ourselves on the example of Mellors and Lady Chatterley, Lady Chatterley's Lover contains an important lesson on the balance needed for true fulfilment in a romantic relationship. Not everyone will require a distinct sexual component to their relationship - some may be psychologically disinterested in sex or physically inhibited. Lady Chatterley is not attempting to instil that sexual fulfilment is an inescapable requirement for a successful relationship. Rather, the novel teaches that it is important to critically examine your needs and then find someone who is able to meet them. To deny your needs - whether out of shame or fear - is to do a disservice to yourself and, inevitably, ensure that your relationships are a shadow of what they could be.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Is anyone surprised? This novel features on just about every list that I'm able to squeeze it into. However, I think this particular list is perhaps the most appropriate and important on which Jane Eyre has featured. Jane Eyre is absolutely my favourite book. There are so many reasons for this. However, the most significant is the way that it shifted my perspective on what it truly means to embrace yourself. Jane Eyre is a character with an impressive amount of self-awareness. From childhood, she displays an incredible sense of self. It is this firm understanding of who she is and what she believes that ultimately dictates the direction of the plot.

Jane Eyre is a complex novel. For me, however, this book is fundamentally a meditation on courage - specifically, the courage that it takes to stand firm in your own self-knowledge. Taken out of the realms of literary fiction and into real life, developing a concrete sense of self is no mean feat. I still struggle with it. However, books like Jane Eyre remind us why it is so important that we navigate life with our own principles as the eternal reference point. As a decade of constant fluctuation, my twenties were the time when I most needed Jane Eyre. Although I will continue coming back to the novel, it has a powerful message for those moments when conformity may seem easier than courage,

3. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Truly, I could have put almost every Jane Austen novel on this list and it wouldn't have seemed out of place. I read each of her books whilst in my twenties and they all made an impression on me in some way. However, Persuasion is undoubtedly the most important in its value to those experiences specific to life as a twenty-something. The novel follows Anne Elliot, a 27 year old whose family is in debt. At the age of 19, Anne had fallen in love with Commander Wentworth but had been persuaded by her family and friends to reject his proposal of marriage. Eight years later, and against a background of financial turmoil, Anne is reintroduced to Wentworth (now a Captain). As she grapples with her continued attachment to him, she must face her regrets and the fear that his affections have found a new direction.

Although Persuasion is one of Austen's lesser-known novels, it is perhaps her most realistic. It is grounded in the fundamentally human experience of what it means to make mistakes and live with their consequences. I am eternally fearful of having regrets, but I've come to realise that they are an inevitable consequence of living life in a world where we have many more choices and paths than we can possibly take. Persuasion is a lesson in the possibility of second chances. Although we may not get another go at love with someone that we've rejected, we never lose the possibility to start over and make difference choices for ourselves. My twenties were a decade replete with 'mistakes' and do-overs. At 28, I turned my career-direction on its head and walked away from a PhD programme that I was six months away from completing. It was both the hardest and the best decision that I've ever made. Mistakes happen. But so do second chances.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This is another novel that I recommend at almost any opportunity. As with Jane Eyre, however, it feels especially appropriate here. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the story of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who has his beauty immortalised by the painter Basil Hallword. Into the plot steps Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist who expresses to the painter and his muse that beauty is the only thing of worth in the world. As a result, Dorian wishes that he can remain young and beautiful forever, with the version of himself captured in the painting ageing in his stead. This wish comes true and we watch as Dorian falls into a life of carelessness and depravity, all the while his painting turns increasingly grotesque and unrecognisable.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a reflection on superficiality. Dorian becomes obsessed with finding a way to retain his beauty in the face of the inevitability of ageing. He rejects change and pursues a course of action that allows him to escape life's natural path, seemingly without consequence. One of the things that I found difficult to accept when moving into the later part of my twenties was the inevitability of certain things - having to worry about money, getting a job, becoming older. With the relative frivolity of our university years, it can be difficult to accept and navigate certain parts of becoming an adult. Although The Picture of Dorian Gray may appear, at first glance, to be simply a gothic novel about a narcissist, there is certainly a point to take away from its plot - accepting the parts of life with which we might not be completely comfortable is necessary. And recognising the inherently fleeting nature of the superficial is an important step toward finding those things that will offer us true fulfilment.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in my mid-twenties, well after the point at which most people have worked their way through its pages. In a way, I'm grateful for this. I think it's an incredibly important book to read in high school, largely because it is most students' first introduction to issues of racism and compassion as immortalised in fiction. I think, however, that reading - or returning to - the novel in your twenties is incredibly important. As the novel follows Atticus Finch in his determined representation of Tom Robinson - a black man accused of raping a white woman - the reader is introduced to what it means to stand fast in compassion. 

This novel obviously has an incredible amount of historical importance and it is vital not to detract from that. As a representation of some of the darkest parts of human history, however, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vital reflection on empathy. As a human rights professional, I've always had a lot of interest in the way that fiction helps to educate us in empathy and compassion. All novels do this to some extent, by requiring that we see the world through someone else's eyes. However, To Kill a Mockingbird grapples with compassion in a very raw and direct way. Of all the lessons that one should seek to learn in their twenties, empathy is by far the most important. As we leave university and move out into the world, we become a fundamental part of the way that society turns. We are no longer viewed as children or dependents; we're no longer excused for our choices on the grounds of immaturity. Learning what it means to develop our principles from a position of compassion is so important. It lays a foundation for a life that is bigger than yourself. Reading or returning to To Kill a Mockingbird at a time when you're figuring out who you want to be and where you want to stand, is one of the most valuable paths to ensuring that your imprint on the world is a positive one.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Monday Musing - 14/10/18

I've officially been 30 years old for three weeks! For the amount of build-up that inevitably accompanies those milestone birthdays, it's been a relatively uneventful few weeks since the big day. Similar to the profound sense of change that is always a part of New Year celebrations, I had a feeling that everything would be different once I entered my new decade and officially departed the uncertainty that characterised my twenties. I think we all have a tendency to believe that we require the most dramatic, remarkable, or rare events in order to spark and justify change in ourselves. I've had a difficult couple of years with an incredible number of changes in my life, so I've often embraced any 'excuse' to adopt new resolutions or perspectives. The difficulty with this is that waiting for the rarity of a new year or a milestone birthday means we spend most of our life in a state of anticipation.

What I've realised as I've grappled with unexpected events, difficult choices, and mental health challenges, is the importance of change in the everyday. We don't need to wait for something extraordinary in order to start over. Every day, moment, breath is an opportunity to get up and start again. Not only does this attitude afford us far more opportunities to adjust our course and choose something better for ourselves, it also gives us even more reasons to recognise our own courage. Change and adaptation are difficult. But it's only through experience and redirection that we'll find where we truly want to be.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Review: 'Kitchen' by Banana Yoshimoto

"The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!)."

If you have known what it is to feel displaced or lonely, it's very likely that you'll also understand the significance of place as something that can ground you and offer comfort. Since I turned 16, I haven't lived in one place for more than two years. 14 years on, I am still adjusting to the sense of permanency that has accompanied my recent move to the US. For the first time since I was a teenager, my feet are firmly planted in one country. While, for many, this thought might be a reassuring one, I've found myself engulfed by a truly bone-clenching sadness. I had become used to the constant moving, the feeling of 'not my home' that would be at least temporarily resolved by another relocation. Since I was 16, I have split my life - and, in many sense, my identity - between the UK and the US. It's a lonely feeling and one to which not many can relate. What I've come to realise, however, is that the shadow of loneliness I'd previously felt only took on a fully-realised form once I'd chosen permanent displacement. There will be no more shifting back and forth between countries. And so I've left part of myself behind permanently, in a place that will remain eternally static in my mind.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto picks up on a number of these themes. It follows the first-person narrative of Mikage Sakurai, a young adult living in Japan. Following the death of her only living relative, her elderly grandmother, Mikage is displaced. Drifting through the world with a profound sense of her own disconnection from those around her. Fortunately, she is taken in by Yuichi Tanabe - a young man who worked in her grandmother's favourite flower shop - and Yucihi's transgender mother, Eriko. This short novella (the story itself stands at just 105 pages) follows Mikage as she attempts to find a place for herself in a world to which she is no longer tied in any concrete sense. 

"Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread over the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness...For the first time, these days, I was touching it with these hands, these eyes. I've been looking at the world half-blind, I thought."

Kitchen is a truly disarming work. Banana Yoshimoto writes with a sincerity and simplicity that makes the depth of her insights all the more translatable into the world of the reader. Although this is a novel that centres around the experience of grief, one feels the weight of the story just as heavily in the uncertainty and fear that accompanies loss. I have yet to experience the type of grief that follows the loss of a loved one, yet the emotions brought into such vivid reality via the experiences of the characters in Kitchen are ones to which I can directly relate. The wrenching of my identity that I have experienced through the shifts of recent years, the sense of permanency as intrinsically tied to that soul-deep sadness, those are things that I understand. While there have been numerous criticisms made of the translation of Kitchen (the fact that some meaning has been lost is inevitable to the process of translating a pictographic language, such as kanji, into English), the simplicity and understated sensuality of Yoshimoto's writing is key to the reader's sense of being engaged in a universal experience. Were the prose over-saturated with imagery or metaphor, I can't help feeling that I would have had a much harder time reading my own experiences into the novella. And my experience of reading the book would have been one that moved me significantly less than it did.

Of course, the most fundamental anchoring point for the story is an appreciation for kitchens. The reader is introduced to this theme immediately and it is carried through the story as Mikage's primary means of grounding herself to the world. In one of the novella's most moving passages, it is the sound of people in a kitchen that brings Mikage back from the brink of despair and to a world replete with potential for a future full of happiness:

"Jammed between my own bags, stooped over, I sobbed. I had never cried this way in my life. As the hot tears poured out, I remembered that I had never had a proper cry over my grandmother's death. I had a feeling that I wasn't crying over one sad thing, but rather for many. Looking up, I saw white steam rising, in the dark, out of a brightly lit window overhead. I listened. From inside came the sound of happy voices at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging. It was a kitchen. I was puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful. I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started back for the Tanabes'. I implored the gods: Please, let me live."

I had the good fortune of discussing this book with my tiny book club, composed of myself and two friends from high school in Florida. We all come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and we are all living in different places, doing different things. Yet, each of us was able to relate to this feeling of connection to place in some way. For one friend, it resounded directly with her memories of her grandparents' house and their kitchen. For my other friend, she felt this connection through the kitchens and houses of others, as well as in coffee shops. For me, it's a well-broken in living room. Kitchens and dining areas are a site of grounding and 'home' for many people. They are perhaps most visibly imprinted with our use and habits -  a place of dirty dishes and crumbs on worktops (or is that just me?). When you walk into a kitchen, there is often an immediate sense of connection. It is a site of communal activity and togetherness, steeped in memories of chatter, cut fingers, and good food. The feeling of connection and comfort rendered by a place - even if that place is seemingly inconsequential to others - is priceless in a world where the experience of 'leaving things behind' and 'being left behind' is universal.

I didn't realise how desperately I needed this book until I read it. Kitchen is simultaneously heart-breaking and utterly reassuring. I was left feeling not only the profound gravity of the losses that I have experienced but also the incredible potential for further connection that a life - even one full of loss - holds. 2018 marks 30 years since Kitchen was first published. It is also the year of my 30th birthday, so it certainly feels as though fate or some kind of divine intervention was working in my favour. Finding out that the book was first published in 1988 astounded me for many reasons. The novella is impressively progressive for its time. Although it struggles in places with an apparent confusion (or perhaps simply a lack of adequate distinction) of transgender versus drag, it positions a transgender woman as perhaps its most enlightened and positive character. Eriko is a role-model to Mikage and an example of the possibilities for growth opened through loss. Kitchen has aged incredibly well. Nothing about the prose or the plot feels dated. The characters and their experiences retain their relatability to an astonishing degree and Yoshimoto's beautiful, nostalgic prose has, I think, got everything to do with the timelessness that her work has achieved.

"As I grow older, much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again. Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet. I will not be defeated. I won't let my spirit be destroyed."

It was incredibly appropriate that Kitchen wandered into my life when it did. Struggling with homesickness and disconnection, I have spent the past year and a half grieving for the part of myself that has been left behind. We will all encounter this feeling, one way or another. Where Kitchen exposes these emotions in all of their raw and earth-shattering reality, it also reassures us that something wonderful can grow in the space occupied by loss. Perhaps it is the embrace of one's true self, as embodied by Eriko, or maybe it's in the connections forged with those who have gone through similar trials. The key is in realising that no experience - however profoundly devastating - truly leaves us with nothing. Even if all we have left is memories, let them be the seed that spurs us on to making new ones.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A 'Beginning of Fall' Book Haul

Is anyone else unreasonably excited by the fact that autumn is now officially here? I've spent the whole of summer ready for this seasonal change, not least because the autumnal equinox coincides with my birthday (so double the reason to celebrate)! As I mentioned in one of my most recent posts (8 Books to Conjure that Cosy Autumn Feeling), autumn is always super significant with regards to my reading habits. As soon as the weather changes, so too do my bookish cravings. This year has been no different and my to-read pile is stacked with various unread novels that lend themselves to dark evenings and big cups of tea (or, more likely, hot chocolate). 

Similar to bears preparing themselves for hibernation, my nesting habits involve an unreasonable amount of book buying. I can't enter the autumn without a good stack of books ready to assist my complete rejection of the outside world. Autumn and winter are the seasons of many important things but my favourite feature is undoubtedly the fact that I no longer need an excuse to choose evenings-in as my preferred way of spending time. To ready myself, I've spent the past few weeks making trips to different bookshops and building a collection of novels ready to accompany me through the rest of the year. I think that today's post is the perfect opportunity to usher in the season, with an overview of my September 'ready for autumn' book haul!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: Autumn, for me, is the season of Dickens. My birthday almost always generates a pretty immediate impulse to pull out one of his books. I'm sure that this is a combination of his atmospheric descriptions and my exclusive association of winter with The Muppet Christmas Carol. I picked up David Copperfield at one of my local independent bookshops (since moving to St. Louis, I've been really surprised to find that there are a lot of great independent bookshops around - I'm sure that I'll post more on this in the future). David Copperfield is one of the few Dickens novels that I haven't already read. In fact, it's largely his most reputed and famous works that are still on my to-read list. I figured that this autumn would be a great opportunity to tick off some more of his incredible novels.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Anyone who is familiar with The Book Habit from back in the day will probably be shocked by the fact that I've yet to read Great Expectations. It's a novel that has eluded me over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, I never actually read any Dickens at school. Everything of his that I've read has been very much a solo endeavour. So, while most of you will likely be acquainted with Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities from your school days, these are two that I've yet to read. However, I could truly talk for days about Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, so maybe this just means that my reading habits are edgily off-trend.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: One of my favourite occupations is going out at 9pm to our nearest Barnes and Noble and spending the later part of my evening trawling the shelves. Don't get me wrong, I do my best to support independent bookshops as much as possible - and I generally balance my book-buying accordingly. However, nothing beats a late night visit to one of the few shops to be open into the evening. Going to Barnes and Noble without any particular intentions is always my favourite way to shop for books. I've discovered so many incredible novels this way (this is an experience that Amazon absolutely cannot replicate). I saw Pachinko on a few separate trips but, for whatever reason, skirted past it. Eventually, something must have grabbed my eye and, after a read of the first few pages, I was hooked. This story of Korean immigrants in Japan is one that I'm incredibly excited to read.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: Another product of a late-night trip to Barnes and Noble. I've seen Lincoln in the Bardo hailed as one of the best books in recent years (it was originally published in 2017). It has won the Man Booker Prize and secured a position on the '2017 100 Notable Books' list from the New York Times. One of the ways that I'm coping with being an immigrant in a country currently experiencing such incredible political turmoil is by trying to immerse myself in its history as far as possible. During times of particular social division, it can be difficult to recall a period when political disagreement looked different from the violence and vitriol that currently seems to exist everywhere. Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel about President Lincoln, following the death of his son. The New York Times Book review called this novel "a luminous feat of generosity and humanism." Since these are two things of which we are deeply in need, I'm hoping this novel will help to clear my head a little.

The Illustrated Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (illustrated by Dame Darcy): Can anyone ever really have enough copies of their favourite book? Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two novels of which I own multiple copies. They didn't even get lost in the great book cull of 2017 (in which I was sadly forced to part with roughly 80% of my book collection - overseas shipping costs are no joke). When I saw this illustrated version of Jane Eyre, I couldn't resist. The fact that I got it in a book sale at one of my favourite local bookshops only helped to hurry the transaction. Although I have minor fears of impacting my reputation as a *serious* reader, I have to admit that I absolutely love illustrated versions of classic novels. Not only am I convinced that cool and quirky illustrations make classics accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise attempt to tackle them, they're also just aesthetically pleasing. Unsurprisingly, I'm obsessed with this very gothic copy of Jane Eyre.

A close-up of the cover. These illustrations are incredible!

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman: Reading the His Dark Materials trilogy was one of the highlights of my young life. Meeting Philip Pullman and having him sign my copy of The Amber Spyglass was the definitive highlight. I have to confess that I haven't really kept up with Pullman's work post-His Dark Materials. I did try to read a couple of the books that he put out but, for various reasons, they didn't manage to grip me or create any lasting impressions. That said, I was incredibly excited to get a copy of The Book of Dust for my birthday, from my lovely grandma. This book is essentially a renewal of his famous trilogy, albeit following a new main character - Malcolm Polstead. I'm so excited to return to the world of His Dark Materials and indulge the part of myself that still very much believes it's the late '90s.

So there we have it! All of my most recent acquisitions. Don't be fooled into thinking that these will carry me through the year, however. This week has seen a couple of important new releases that I'm already working to secure for my to-read pile! One of these releases also coincides with an amazing author event that I'm attending on Saturday and which I'll give you the scoop on next week. So stay tuned for that. 

If you have any of your own recent reads or purchases to recommend, let me know in the comments! I'm always looking for any excuse to keep rebuilding my demolished collection.