The shadow of man

When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by our own shadows: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myth, falls upon them. I do not say we are wrong to tremble at his shadow; it is a shadow of an image of God.

Dogma and the Universe, C.S. Lewis

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Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud

Sun Shuyun’s Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud is a unique piece of non-fiction: it details Sun’s journey across China and India in the footsteps of a seventh-century monk. Xuanzang, the monk in question, is a fascinating historical figure. Xuanzang’s journey was a venture of spiritual discovery; he followed in the footsteps of the Buddha, and as a result of his endeavour has become renowned as a pivotal figure in the history of Buddhism. Ten Thousand Miles is one of those stories that remind me of the true magic of books; it’s even more amazing to consider that Sun Shuyun began her research into Xuanzang’s life with no intention of documenting her journey, and so the insightful and poignant discoveries revealed by her quest may never have been shared.

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Xuanzang has been immortalized as the rather hapless monk in Journey to the West. The real Xuanzang, however, was not the bumbling man depicted in Wu Cheng’en’s fiction. This perception is debunked by Xuanzang’s own record of the epic eighteen-year journey, titled The Record of the Western Regions. Thanks to his fastidious descriptions, sites of great historical importance have been unearthed by archaeologists (‘returned from the graveyard of history’, as Sun aptly states). Sun’s writing exemplifies the true extent of his achievements; his name is truly deserving of its immortality and reputation as an epic hero equal to Aeneas. By retracing his steps, Sun allows for a reflective and probing meditation on his significance and vividly awakens the China of this lost age.

The sense of the circularity of history has lingered with me since finishing Ten Thousand Miles. Xuanzang’s quest formed the basis of the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, a story loved since its earliest incarnation and adapted countless times for opera, film and TV. It’s fascinating to consider the ways in which fact gives birth to legend. Xuanzang’s encounter with a red stone mountain under a blazing sun, for example, became the Flaming Mountain portrayed in Journey to the West, which itself gave rise to a new myth, the fearsome Fire Mountain of the Ox King in Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball.

Through reading Sun’s account of her travels I also learned about Chinese literature and culture, such as the definition of Scar Literature, the popularity of Li Bai, and the cultural resonance of jade. Next on my to-find list is Xuanzang’s The Record of the Western Regions, temptingly described by Sun as ‘an encyclopedia of the history and culture of the time; it is the testimony to a lost world.’

The first word

And then I realized what the first word must have been: ma, the sound of a baby smacking its lips in search of her mother’s breast. For the long time, that was the only word the baby needed. Ma, ma, ma. Then the mother decided that was her name and she began to speak, too. She taught the baby to be careful: sky, fire, tiger. A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan


Hieroglyphics and Other Stories

Anne Donovan’s Hieroglyphics and Other Stories is a collection of short stories which largely explore the lives and interactions of schoolchildren and their families (albeit with several interesting deviations). As brilliant a collection as Hieroglyphics is, the experience of reading these stories was slightly eerie, as I’ll most likely be teaching these selfsame stories in just a few months’ time, and so I couldn’t help but imagine how I’ll discuss Donovan’s writing with my teenage students. It’s an exciting prospect, though I’ll also glad that there’s still several weeks left before my course begins, as weather like this is meant for reading outside with your feet up.

annedonovanI can certainly appreciate why this collection has found its way onto the school curriculum. Donovan’s language is skillfully chosen and deeply connotative, and her subject matter is subtle but affecting. Her writing evokes the thoughts and fears of a wide cast of characters with masterful ease. This collection also challenges one of my own unfortunate prejudices about books: I dislike reading any form of dialect. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll usually just skim over it and hope I didn’t miss anything too important. The ‘Sloosha’s Crossin” section of Cloud Atlas was a struggle, and it’s testament to David Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t skip over a single word. Donovan adopts a Glaswegian vernacular in many of the stories collected here, and I have to confess that at first I found this offputting. It’s been drilled into me for years that Scots and other forms of dialect are inferior to ‘proper English’, and it’s only with effort that I can overcome this assumption. In Donovan’s stories, however, this dialect is absolutely essential: it expresses the true voice of her characters and does not feel at all forced or hackneyed. In contrast, Donovan’s writing is enhanced by her choice of words, which intensifies the sense of sincerity conveyed throughout her stories.

A raging tide

In 1968 a raging tide of youth, a raging tide of hot blood, a raging tide of innocence surged towards the countryside, the mountains, and the vast wildernesses. Not an eastward crusade, yet history was about to be written; not a mass migration, yet ten of thousands of households would taste the bitter fruit of parting; not a battlefield incursion, yet a volunteer arm, solemn and purposeful, was on the march.

Blood Red Sunset, Ma Bo


Harry, A History

It’s been a distinctly Potterish few weeks: I’ve just finished re-reading the series, yesterday marked two years since the release of The Deathly Hallows Part 2 in cinemas, while the sixteenth anniversary of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was celebrated on the 26th June. I decided to wrap out my revisit to the Potter world by stepping back from the series itself and taking a look at some of the non-fiction which has sprung up around it. Harry, A History documents Melissa Anelli’s experiences within the Potter fandom. Melissa’s journey begins with her discovery of the books as a college graduate, and leads to her position as the editor of the popular fansite The Leaky Cauldron. Melissa’s perspective is particularly interesting because she’s not only a fan of the series, but also an insider: Melissa has personally interviewed J.K Rowling, attended film premieres, and grown friendly with the cast. As Melissa enjoys a level of access denied to most fans, her study of the Harry Potter series certainly provides insight into the people at the heart of the phenomenon.

harryahistoryJ.K. Rowling’s foreword makes a fascinating contrast with Melissa’s experiences, as the Potter author stayed decidedly outside of the fan fervour surrounding the books for a long time. The sense of community which stems from a shared love of the series has developed to an astounding scale, previously unprecedented amongst young adult fiction.Melissa herself formed new friendships and had opportunities that would never have been possible without Potter. The internet also rapidly expanded during the same time period as the meteoric success of the series, and to an extent the two are inter-twined: the internet made it possible for large communities of fans to connect and engage from all across the globe.

Melissa’s study covers the most unique aspects of the Potter fandom, such as Wizard Rock, the censorship challenges surrounding the alleged promotion of witchcraft, and the furious debate between those who championed the Harry/Hermione relationship over Ron/Hermione. The meetings between Melissa and J.K. Rowling are fascinating to read about, and I also enjoyed reading of Melissa and her friends’ reactions to the revelations brought with the release of each new book. I think the biggest drawback of Harry, A History as a study of the fan phenomenon is perhaps that it focuses too greatly on Melissa’s own personal experiences, rather than exploring the reasons behind the series’ success. I’d still recommended the book, though, as the perspective of a devoted fan who managed to infiltrate the inside mechanisms of the series.

Some kinds of magic

‘Certainly,’ said Voldemort, and his eyes seemed to burn red. ‘I have experimented; I have pushed the boundaries of magic further, perhaps, than they have ever been pushed -‘
‘Of some kinds of magic,’ Dumbledore corrected him quietly. ‘Of some. Of others, you remain…forgive me…woefully ignorant.’
For the first time, Voldemort smiled. It was a taut leer, an evil thing, more threatening than a look of rage.
‘The old argument,’ he said softly. ‘But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.’
‘Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places,’ suggested Dumbledore.