Holy crumpet, a nomination!

A gigantic thank you to I’m a Book Lover and Proud for nominating me for ‘The Very Inspiring Blogger Award’! The nomination was completely unexpected and very very much appreciated! I’ve only been blogging since December but I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering and interacting with other bloggers so far, and it means a lot to be welcomed into the wonderful community of book-bloggers on WordPress.

Here are the rules:

  • Display the Award Certificate on your website.
  • Announce your win with a post and link to whoever presented you with the award.
  • Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers.
  • Drop them a comment to tip them off after you have linked them in the post.
  • Post 7 interesting things about yourself

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7 facts about me (I may have interpreted the word ‘interesting’ quite loosely):

  1. Victorian London is my favourite fictional setting. (Excluding Hogwarts and Gormenghast, of course!)
  2. I spend more time than I’d like to admit looking at pictures of kittens/gifs of cats falling over.
  3. I cannot cook, at all. Left to my own devices, I will try to survive solely on bagels and chocolate. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m still functioning…
  4. When I was young(er), I wanted to be a member of Team Rocket.
  5. I love A Song of Ice and Fire but there are quite a few characters I still haven’t forgiven George R.R. Martin for killing off.
  6. I once met Sebastian Peake, Mervyn Peake’s eldest son.
  7. My favourite words are currently ‘rambunctious’ and ‘piffle’.

I would like to nominate the following talented people. I can’t recommend these bloggers highly enough!

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Sing of Odysseus

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the sun
and the Sun god wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.

The Odyssey, Homer

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The Bell Jar

‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther? A piece of dust.’

‘So are the cadavers you cut up. So are the people you think you’re curing. They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together.’

I have a confession to make: until very recently I believed wholeheartedly in the mythology surrounding Sylvia Plath, which represents the author as someone grim, depressive and entirely unrelatable. I was introduced to Plath through her poetry collection Ariel, from which I failed to gleam very much at all, though there’s a good chance that’s the result of my own failings as a reader. Either way, after struggling through a seminar on Ariel, Plath and her poetic speaker were inseparable to me, and I resented them both*. After reading The Bell Jar, however, I am having to reconsider my whole position on Plath.

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Esther Greenwood, a literature student and fledgling writer, is the protagonist and narrator of Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel. With the exceptions of her problematic relationship with Buddy Willard and her overly-zealous approach to her studies, Esther’s life appears to be one of privilege: she has been awarded a prestigious internship in New York and her mother has made great sacrifices to give Esther as many opportunities as possible (‘the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-colour lessons and the dancing lessons’). This allows the novel to explore one of the most pervasive prejudices surrounding depression: that some people have a greater ‘right’ to be depressed than others, and that seemingly fortunate and successful people like Esther have no right whatsoever to label themselves depressed. Esther’s mother gives voice to this misconception, telling her daughter ‘I knew you’d decide to be all right again.’ According to this reductive understanding, Esther’s emotional turmoil is something she has brought upon herself and which, by extension, she can simply choose to snap out of.  Not even Esther herself understands her mental state, never mind exercising any degree of control over it. In spite of her achievements, Esther merely feels numb, as though just going through the motions of living: ‘I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel.’ The bell jar of depression is a prison from Esther can’t escape; her whole outlook on the world is dictated by the prism through which she perceives it.

Through Esther’s plight, the novel engages with a further dilemma: how to react when confronted with unsettling truths about the world we inhabit. Esther desires to return to childhood and its accompanying innocence, but such a return is impossible. The most unsettling aspect of maturity is arguably learning the stark truth that one day, we all must die. Esther is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the idea of death; her mixed response to witnessing medical students conduct a human dissection demonstrates the difficult of comprehending this ugly reality. After her exposure to the cadavers, Esther is unable to reclaim her past ignorance: ‘For weeks afterwards, the cadaver’s head…floated up behind my eyes and bacon at breakfast.’ The discovery of mortality raises yet another conundrum: how to live the best life possible in the meantime. Esther’s anxiety about her options after college was the feature of the novel I identified most strongly with (while I’m certain that career options for women in general have improved vastly in the interim, I’m sure graduate prospects for literature students haven’t changed much since the 60s). Plath captures the fear provoked by this question perfectly. Esther envisions all her future options arranged as figs on a tree, and pictures herself starving to death in front of it, as ‘choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.’

While not necessarily a more uplifting experience than my first encounter with Plath, I am very very glad that I gave her writing a second chance.

*Before you judge me too harshly, I dare you to try listening to Plath’s own reading of her poem Daddy without shuddering. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM

A dream within a dream

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh

Art is an international language, which, unlike a spoken language, can be understood by all peoples. The Second World War has made everything chaotic and difficult, but I think it has at the same time brought all of us peace-loving peoples closer together, and it is natural that we should try to understand each other better than before. What better way could there be than through the international language of art?

Chiang Yee’s The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh was first published in 1948, fifteen years after the author left his native China for Britain, where he would remain until emigrating to the States in 1955. Chiang toured several British cities and recorded his experiences, and subsequently wrote about his journeys in America. These works cemented his reputation as a travel writer, an accomplished artist, and an acute observer of the nuances of human life. It’s easy to understand the reasons for Chiang’s popularity: he offers a refreshingly uncynical perspective.

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Although The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh presents, as you might expect, the account of Chiang’s stay in the Scottish Capital, Chiang’s native China intrudes upon his travelogue in the form of references to Chinese folktales, architecture, and historical figures. Perhaps the best way to understand one’s own culture is to explore another, as Chiang himself suggests: ‘How true it is that one can see others more clearly than oneself!’

This does not mean that Chiang is uninterested in his Scottish surroundings; instead, these references serve to expose similarities between the two nations. Chiang discovers several parallels between Scottish and Chinese culture (for example, the use of similar imagery in the poetry of Robert Burns and ancient Chinese love-songs). These connections lead towards the message which underlies Chiang’s travelogue: the universal power of art. To find this message in any piece of travel writing would be slightly disconcerting, but the surprised is doubled when this view is expressed in Chiang’s deceptively simplistic prose. By arguing that great artistic accomplishments will transcend the barrier of nationality, Chiang offers a pertinent message to post-war Britain. I would argue that Chiang’s wishful proposition is close to being fulfilled today, as modern technology further erodes national boundaries. The translation of the ostensibly British Harry Potter series into at least 67 additional languages surely represents the realisation of Chiang’s idealistic vision.

A sidenote: this blog now has a Facebook page! I hope to use the page as means of sharing articles, images, comics and quotes, so feel free to follow if you would like more book-related goodies in your newsfeed!

Click to follow: www.facebook.com/TheCatThatWalksByHerself

Stories have a way of changing faces

The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente

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Boy in Darkness

We are all that is left of them…of all the creatures of the globe; of all insects and all birds – of the fish of the salt ocean and the beasts of prey. For he has changed their natures, and they have died. But we did not die. We became as we are through the powers of the Lamb and from his terrible skill.

The deadline for my dissertation is fast approaching and I have Mervyn Peake on the mind. I fancy escaping, for a short while, from the confines of Gormenghast and delving instead into Peake’s shorter fiction. Boy in Darkness [1956] is a deeply unsettling novella, which presents the attempt of the eponymous Boy (unnamed but undoubtedly Titus Groan) to flee from the castle and the nightmarish episode which ensues.

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Boy in Darkness demonstrates the same flourishing, wildly evocative language of its predecessors. Through the Boy’s flight from his home, it also explores a similar theme: the desire of youth to revolt against age. The incoherence of the adult world is expressed through the ‘idiotic ceremonies’ in which the Boy is forced to participate; the traditions of the old are meaningless in the eyes of the young. Yet it simultaneously expresses the fears which constrain this desire to rebel, and which come close to curtailing the Boy’s escape: ‘It was not that something had gone that in his heart of hearts he wanted back but that something lay ahead of him that he had no wish to meet.’

The Boy’s fears are not without foundation; lost in an alien landscape, he encounters creatures akin to the Beast-Folk of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Goat and Hyena possess the uncanny quality of H.G. Wells’ creations; they appear at once both familiar and strange, both human and beast. The Boy struggles to pinpoint the source of repulsion evoked by the creatures (‘The head was long and huge. But why should that, in itself, be repellent or impossible?’) but cannot help shuddering at their distinctly animalistic gestures. Unlike Doctor Moreau’s research subjects, Hyena and Goat are men re-fashioned as animals, but their transformation nevertheless expresses the same anxiety: the possibility that civilised men could revert to their bestial origins. Hyena and Goat have vague recollections of their human experiences: when the Boy weeps in response to his fear and fatigue, his cries provoke old memories, although neither creature can remember what it means to shed tears.

The transformation of Hyena and Goat represents the handiwork of the Lamb, to whom his creations show an almost religious devotion, hailing him as ‘our sovereign lord of the white head’. In contrast to his angelic white features, the Lamb’s voice cuts like a knife, while his sighs are ‘the sound of a scythe’. Unlike his creations, the Lamb is neither human or animal, but distinctly Other. In controlling the half-men he performs a similar role to Doctor Moreau, but with the crucial difference that his experiments were not undertaken in the hopes of benefiting humanity, but rather as an expression of his loathing towards mankind.

Boy in Darkness presents a truly disturbing tale; the crumbling Gothic castle of Titus Groan and Gormenghast feels almost homely in contrast to the cavernous lair of the Lamb.