Visions of the Future

Yesterday, I touched on time travel, the present we inherit from the past, and our perceptions of time. I want to start with perception today, as I think about other aspects of time travel in fiction.

Meanwhile, my fiancé reminds me that we’re supposed to be watching Back to the Future III today, so therefore I have to be quick. Time. Never enough of it.

We are all subject to time. Whatever you measure it with, it slices our experience of the world into regular segments, neatly numbered. We can spend it or save it, but we can’t survive it – but we can experience it at different speeds.

Time drags when we’re bored, and flies when we’re busy. For all that our divisions of time are rational, our perception of time is fundamentally illogical. And we can escape it for a while by slipping into stories.

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Back to the Future Day, Time Travel and Perceptions of the Past

In honour of Back to the Future Day, a few thoughts on time travel.

Why are we so drawn to stories of moving in time?

The idea that time is mutable isn’t a new one.Time-travel stories feel like a new, science-fiction phenomenon, but they’ve been around for thousands of years. But I think it’s interesting to read them in terms of a more modern understanding of culture, of the individual, and of the power of choice.

We all carry history with us. We’re surrounded by things that were built long before we were born, and will endure once we’re dead. And as we live our lives, we tell stories about how things happened and wonder “What if something else happened instead?”.

Those idle daydreams where we pick over the decisions and moments of the past and re-play them to our own satisfaction (or worry) offer us glimpses of what we could describe as “alternative realities”. We often wish we could go back and give our past selves advice, or even that someone viewing all the paths of our lives could categorically say, in the moment of an agonising decision, “This is the right choice for you to make”. (Some of us do this with future worries, too.)

“What if?” is at the heart of all storytelling. And time-travel brings to life the “What if?” that changes all the world around you.

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Review: ‘Disgrace’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Disgrace is the first book I’m reviewing for Penguin Books’ Google+ proof group. It wasn’t the kind of book that I would normally choose, so I was keen to have it to review, and as far as possible I’m going to keep this post spoiler-free. I hadn’t read any of Adler-Olsen’s work before, but I am a casual fan of the crime drama. This one was interesting – it gave away a lot of information, littering clues and potential clues around and then playing with different ways of weaving them together, which I thought worked better than the standard ‘eking out a clue at a time’ formula.

I felt like I missed out on a little because it was the second book of a series, and I would have been more invested if I’d known the main character better. I did like the cranky protagonist and his misfit team – they were very well characterised. I particularly liked the verbal tics of the Syrian team-member, and the black humour in the police-team scenes was a great counterpoint to the rest of the novel, which was bleak. Not that I expect crime dramas to be cheery, but this one was especially dark. The ‘woman with a secret’ was also an interesting character – pathetic, sympathetic and utterly repellent all at once, and her unstable sanity was well presented: no cod psychology or pseudo-diagnoses, just simply and effectively experienced by the reader.

There were a couple of moments I was unsure of – Disgrace was more violent than I expected, and I found the violence towards the female body and the numerous rapes difficult to process. I did have to skip a few particularly brutal pages. There were also a few moments of plot where some pretty unlikely things happened, but then, that’s what happens in literature anywhere, so it’s not really a criticism. It was still compelling, and the psychopathy of the antagonists was well-done – not overstated or melodramatic, but in fact based on a consistent series of incidents that were psychologically coherent, rather than any kind of dramatic backstory reveal or anything.  I also wasn’t entirely clear on why the novel was called Disgrace, because it didn’t particularly seem to be about disgrace, just the exposure of a horrible group of people who had done horrible things to one another and to others, but that’s just me and my creative-writing-tutoring brain bothering away at the little details.

Overall, a very interesting book – very bleak, very bitter, but with the right notes of hope and progress at the end. The choice of giving so difficult a character as Kimmie such a leading role worked very well, and the denouement was a fine show of Chekhov’s gunmanship, bringing together a lot of elements in a way that wasn’t quite what I anticipated.

A love note to literature, and a P.S. with kisses for science

Everybody knows that being an artist isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since the idea is fossilised in romantic layers truisms about starving for one’s art, or semi-cynical mocking of poetic tendencies and how bloody useless and impractical it sounds that, say, Alfred, Lord Tennyson took ten or so years to write a long-ish poem called The Holy Grail. I’ve heard scientists dismiss what sounds to me like fascinating research into medieval literary traditions as ‘pointless’ and ‘adding nothing real to human knowledge’. To the contrary, I argued, understanding medieval literary traditions broadens our knowledge of history, of religion, of the development of culture, the development of human subjectivity, psychology and of science itself. It was as ‘real’ a contribution to human understanding as studying, say, the evolution of star types (I should probably note at this juncture that both the medieval literary traditions, and the star-types astrophsyics, are the subjects of PhD theses written by friends of mine, who both attended Cardiff University). And that idea of ‘real’ knowledge is a weaselly little bastard, suggesting that some kinds of study are more valid than others but actually validating only the speaker’s view. To someone blindfolded, a tour around the Louvre will be less ‘real’ than the view impressed on them when sight is returned, and to wilfully blind yourself by arguing that some types of knowledge are more valid than others seems appallingly arrogant. To me, though any contribution to human knowledge is important, it’s a little less impressive to be looking a balls of gas billions and billions of light-years away than it is to be studying literature, which I view as a delightful blend of crystallised contemporary culture, imagination and language.

Art reflects life. It has to, in order to generate any meanings with its audience. And art requires an audience, is always painted or performed or screened for an audience. Shakespeare’s histories are full of references to Renaissance culture, because he wasn’t writing to an audience of classicists, he was writing to Renaissance people. Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), a classic of science fiction, is packed full of adventures in phenomenally futuristic technology – but video is recorded on tapes, which must have made perfect sense at the time but are, of course, incongruously dated now. That’s what I mean by moments of culture crystallised in literature. And that’s one of the things that makes literature so crucial to human understanding – and I don’t just mean ‘art’ literature. I mean everything. I mean music, TV, magazines, pulpy crime thrillers, as well as the off-puttingly judgemental label ‘literary fiction’ – but my issues with literary fiction are an issue for another time.

For scientists (my absolutely not comprehensive, but instead dramatically-appropriate, sample of two scientists both had to be convinced of the value of literature) to dismiss literature as ‘unreal’ strikes me as not just frustrating, but frustratingly arrogant. Another scientist I know once asked me why I thought that literature could say anything about human psychology because the characters were made up. The question absolutely bowled me over. As a student of literature and a teacher of creative writing, I’d completely forgotten that something I took for granted was so unintuitive to someone else trained in a completely different discipline. Literature tells us about human psychology because it was written by a human being. On one level, it really is that simple. Literature tells us about history because it was written by people immersed in history; it tells us about culture because it both responds to and creates culture, be it high culture or popular culture; rinse and repeat for philosophy, sociology, even particular knowledge of science. It can be analysed in any way you like, meaning can be read into it in many ways, some of which are of course more useful and yielding than others, but it is always a contribution to human knowledge – even if that knowledge is a little bit meta, and tells you more about the critic than about the text, because it’s knowledge that is unusually reflexive about the human condition.

What bothered me the most about those exchanges, though, was the fact that they reflected a ‘division’ in intellectual pursuits that I had, innocently, assumed that people had grown out of because I’d grown out of it.

I’ve always believed that science and art are completely complimentary because they cover such different areas of human experience and knowledge. Literature generates a form of analysis that operates entirely outside the scientific method, which is one reason it’s so valuable – because the scientific method sometimes turns up in really peculiar places because people think it’s a better form of knowledge (but anybody who reads XKCD will know how untrue that is). At its most basic, empirical analysis of a book reveals: ink, words, pages, paper. The most casual literary analysis of scientific texts probably provides little more than a comment like ‘you haven’t consistently hyphenated jiggle-mapping’ (a sentence I have had the pleasure of uttering – to my friend who did a PhD in astrophysics, in fact). Physics can tell us truly amazing things about music, how it’s made, why things sound the way they do, but not why people like and dislike different things. The divergence in their interests makes sure that everything is covered, but also the comparison between disciplines, in a way, means that they can keep each other grounded.

This is also going up unedited, simply because I’m sleepy and I was just recording some ponderings. I may come back and tweak it later if it turns out I’ve done that thing where my brain was going faster than my fingers and I’ve missed key words out of sentences.

Bibliodyssey: October Renaissance

I made an executive decision, since my last post was reaching marathon lengths, to separate my discussion of Renaissance drama into a different post. I’ve allowed myself to expand and be a bit more scholarly here.

October: The Plays

Now we get to the Renaissance drama section of the Bibliodyssey. I absolutely adore the works of the British Renaissance – it was a time of such phenomenal exploration in the arts and sciences, with so much thinking about thinking itself, about life and death, history and tradition and what they told us and why, meaning and the acquisition of knowledge, the law and the body, gender and the subject, art and power.

I’ve written about Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi before (see June), because I re-read it before with a mind to editing it and directing a production. I’m still bouncing this thought around in my head, but haven’t really had the time to arrange my ideas to my satisfaction yet. Regardless, it is a powerful meditation on the tensions between power, the law, gender and desire. Critical essay and perhaps theatrical production to follow.

Everyman, author unknown, is a medieval morality play about a materialistic ‘Everyman’ who is tested by God, visited by Death, tries to bribe him, and must discover what will get him into Heaven before he actually dies. He discovers that the proper Christian virtue is Good Deeds, where Knowledge, Faithfulness, Goods and other such things are not what will get him into heaven. It’s a fairly direct text in that its ideology is right there in the fact that one man has a dialogue with a lot of personified ideas and then discovers that only one of them is the correct one. What is interesting, though, is the presence of God and Death as entities on the stage. Later in the Renaissance, not only was the representation of Death more metaphorical, but God was banned from the theatrical stage at some point – I just spent half an hour trawling through notes and texts and I can’t find the reference, alas. I do know that medieval mystery plays (called ‘mystery’ because of the old use of the word to mean ‘miracle’, not as in Sherlock Holmes) were banned from the stage altogether during the Reformation, because mystery plays are, inescapably, Catholic doctrine presented for peoples’ education and amusement.

I think that sums up, for me, what the Renaissance was all about: an awareness that plays, and other literature, said something more than just the words actors spoke, that there were meanings encoded in those words and performances, meanings in things said and things left unsaid. And in a time of such change, when the foundation of the world, the church, was so totally undermined, which allowed huge accelerations in the progress of art and science – when suddenly laws and the nature of laws were changed, and everybody was asking who had the power to make those laws and whether they were right, and what did it mean – the plays and the poetry and the politics are all caught up together, and it’s amazing.

A significant part of that, of course, was one W. Shakespeare, but he was part of a fantastic whole, so I’ll come back to him later.

Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness is a very peculiar play to the modern eye. Like many Renaissance dramas, it deals with the problem of adultery, female autonomy, why extramarital relations are necessarily extralegal relations and issues to do with power when placed within a domestic setting. (An adulterous wife was committing an act of petty treason in the Renaissance, because the husband was the head of the family just as the monarch was the head of state.) Of course I’m simplifying, but the point stands. A Woman Killed with Kindness, then, is a play in which an adulterous wife is not killed or punished outright by her husband; she is banished to a country house where she is to live, without contact from her friends or children, until the end of her days. It turns out that ‘the end of her days’ is quite soon, because she starves herself to death in penitence for what she’s done, and on her deathbed, begs her materialistic, cruel and self-focused husband for forgiveness. It’s interesting from a number of critical perspectives – the alignment of bodily purity with starvation, for example, and the fact that the title of the play suggests that her husband explicitly kills her – but I won’t go into detail here.

Yes, all of my enjoyment of Renaissance drama comes through the kaleidoscope of historical politics and ideology.

I also read Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus for the first time, and though I absolutely adored the elegance of his language, I have to confess that I was underwhelmed by it. I feel slightly guilty saying it, but Faustus was off-puttingly whiny as a character. As a symbol of the putative dangers of acquiring knowledge and as a satire on mystery plays it is brilliant, but I disliked the central character so much that from an artistic perspective I didn’t really connect with it.

You don’t need me to tell you that Shakespeare was a Renaissance writer, I’m sure. You may need me to tell you that, yes, he’s great, please don’t be so embarrassingly effusive about it, there’s no such thing as innate genius, writing is a craft, please stop drooling, I grew up in Stratford, yes he was brilliant but he was just this guy, you know? And don’t even get me started on the people who go on the offensive or the defensive about whether he ‘really’ wrote those plays or not. The man is less important than the works. I don’t hold with this ‘bardolatry’ rubbish, or with people seeking to deify things that they don’t want to understand in order to make them more important, or with people going “Nobody could have written all that!”… Yes they could. Also, it was very common for things to be written in collaboration, GET OVER IT and STUDY SOME CULTURAL HISTORY.

(Unless you’re the Royal Shakespeare Company, then you can do whatever you want and especially hire me, because I love you, despite your imperfections, because sometimes you just love things that way.)

Rant over.

Having reaffirmed my position as someone who thinks the works are more important than the man, I really, really love the works and what they do and the way that once Shakespeare gets his linguistic stride on, he can produce some truly remarkable things.

In Measure for Measure, for example, which I read both in its entirety and cut into the script for the production I’m in, there are some very clever metal/mettle, coinage, purity/bastardy allusions that run all the way through the text, from the moment that the Duke begins his experimentations with power all the way through to the end when the issues of what constitutes legal and illegal violence are resolved.

Hamlet, of course, is one of the central texts of the English-speaking worlds, and what I love about it most is that it meditates on the power of tragedy itself. Tragic literature, it seems to me, especially theatre, in order to be actually tragic, needs to have the realistic opportunity to be a comedy. If it could plausibly turn out alright, but then does not, that’s when it has impact. And Hamlet tries so desperately to get up the courage to kill the king, but worries too much about sending him to heaven, and delays and delays until he accidentally kills Polonius instead. Poor bastard.

My reading of Hamlet was changed forever when one of my lecturers, Richard Wilson, pointed out that the ghost of Hamlet’s father has returned from Purgatory – which necessarily means that he’s Catholic, because the Anglican church doesn’t have Purgatory – in order to command his son to ‘Remember’. Hamlet is a Protestant prince, at university in Wittenberg – the site of the Lutheran Reformation. And because Hamlet chooses to remember nothing but his dead father, in a sense he allows himself to be haunted by the Catholic past and to not behave reasonably or look to an integrated future. The moment he chooses to look only backward, he damns himself.

I enjoyed re-visiting Julius Caesar because it also deals with memory, but in such a way that it does look to the future. It’s also quite metatheatrical in some ways. I found it interesting that the conspirators spend so long talking themselves into the act of assassination (did you know that the first use of the word “assassination” was in Macbeth?) by justifying it with how they will represent it to the people: ‘Let’s be sacrificers, not butchers’ (Julius Caesar 2.1.173), understanding that the way in which a death is presented will affect peoples’ reactions to it, just like the effect of theatre itself on its audience.

And it was fun to glance over The Winter’s Tale again because it linked into some of my research interests into the representation of women, the body, gender and issues of power – the same with Macbeth, which was the first Shakespeare I read and I’ve been in love with it since I was nine years old. But I think I’ve managed quite an essay so far, so I’ll cut this short here and go get myself yet more tea.

Bibliodyssey: October’s Overview and Books

This month has involved mainly texts for my degree, an MA in English Literature in which I’m currently studying the myth of King Arthur in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a module wonderfully titled ‘Violent Death in Renaissance Drama’. Mythology may be my primary area of research and I love it dearly, but I have a heart full of passion for Renaissance drama. In my fantasy academic career, I would write delicious papers on uses of mythology and then season them with Renaissance interludes. Beware my love letter to the Renaissance below.

So the books/texts/sources examined this month were: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (yes, all of them), a modernised Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur*, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi* (again), a medieval play called Everyman, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness* and a selection of Shakespeares, including Measure for Measure*Hamlet*, Julius Caesar* a brief glance at Macbeth* and The Winter’s Tale*. I also re-read Howl’s Moving Castle.

I’ve just made the executive decision to move my discussion (read: love letter to) Renaissance drama to another post, because this one was reaching truly epic proportions as it was.

October: The Books

I have to confess that I hadn’t really read much Tennyson before I came to the Idylls of the King – I knew ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’, but largely there’s a hole in my knowledge where the C19th should be (side note: my brother’s impersonation of Brian Blessed bellowing ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is not to be missed). I don’t know, I think I was suspicious of the C19th from a young age because I knew that the literature and history of the time presented things in a very specific way. I feel like a lot of my early knowledge of history and literature was moulded by an awareness that my mother was taught something very different, my mother being Irish, and learning to hold different parts of history and different perspectives together. (I’ll post more on post-colonialism another time.)

So basically, in my knowledge of history, literature and time there’s a large gap where the C19th should be. And when I came to read Tennyson, I think I was a little disappointed because he was everything that, in writing and in what I read, I’ve been trying to escape: the verse, the capitalisation all down one side, the encoded C19th values. And it took me a very long time to get into them, because as I read them, I was underwhelmed by their poetry. I struggled to find anything to discuss about them, because their ideology seemed so clear. But that’s a very peculiarly literature-student issue, I know. As actual poems, they’re well-crafted and not unenjoyable. I just like things with irony, with a sense of holding odd ideas together to make them fit, or for searching for ideas in the text, not such solid and obvious politics. But still.

I just spent two paragraphs saying that I felt underwhelmed by Tennyson for vague post-colonial reasons. Oh, me.

The version of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur I was reading was Helen Cooper’s Oxford World’s Classics modernised-English edition. It is, overall, a fantastic version, with an introduction into the texts and contexts that is scholarly, interesting and lucid. She has edited most sections quite subtly, but in one or two places there are large sections missing from the original text, which would be a bother to a scholar but for a casual reader probably does make it more accessible. I like this edition very much, and I would recommend it highly to anybody wanting a way into Malory but without having to tackle all of the middle English language and spellings. (Actually, I love the middle English spellings, I think they’re wonderful, but this was the edition we were told to buy for my first year, so this is the one I have.)

I also read, for funs, the magnificent Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. It is one of my all-time favourite books, because it’s entertaining, clever, very funny and it unfolds so elegantly, revealing the underlying patterns and that nothing is spare, or made up to fill a plot hole, because there are no plot holes. Yes, dear reader, a book for children that has no plot holes, an interesting main character and endearing twists that actually make perfect sense once you’ve been around them. None of this “she was sekritly a sekrit important thing all along, and I’m going to pretend I’ve been withholding information because I can’t think of anything else” nonsense. And there’s one particularly wonderful twist that I will never stop enjoying (it’s in the chapter “Howl Goes to a Strange Country in Search of a Spell”, and he certainly does, and it’s absolutely not what you expect, and it’s wonderful, and if you have read it you know exactly what I mean).

I posted my thoughts about the relationship between the Howl’s Moving Castle book and film on my other blog, Aisling Edits, where I indulge my desire to edit everything, and consider books and films and whether I think they work. If you don’t mind spoilers, go and check it out.

Next up: the other half of October’s Bibliodyssey, which will be a journey through half of my Renaissance Drama course texts. Oh yes, dear reader, there will be more to come. But first I’m going to have half an hour off for a cup of rejuvenative tea.

Bibliodyssey: September

This month has, I have to confess, been rather a failure on the ‘reading a whole book to the end’ front. I’ve spent a lot of it recovering from the flue, which has involved a certain amount of exhaustion and book-skipping. I’ve also been doing something every weekend – a writing course, a teacher training course, a bicycle weekend, a D&D campaign – which has somewhat decimated reading time.

I did, however, buy plenty of books and read parts of several, and also return to research ahead of the new academic year, so I do at least have things to blog about.

Books looked-at-in-a-reading-way: The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory*, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory*, Pyramids, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, H. G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall, Rius’ Introducing Marx and just a little bit of Jane Eyre.


My return to research meant that I spent a lot of time paging through critical theory, because I’m doing the groundwork for a potential PhD. I’m about to begin my master’s, and while I anticipate that being enjoyable, it’s becoming clear to me that I think a PhD is what I really want to do, and so I want to establish the parameters of my research as early as possible. Throughout my undergrad I found The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (I have the fourth edition, which was written by J. A. Cuddon and revised from the 1991 third edition by C. E. Preston in 1998) an inexpressibly useful resource, full not only of knowledge but also of insight, clearly and concisely expressed. It has been my starting point for many a research mission, and it is probably the one book I would say that an English Literature student absolutely has to own. (E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel comes a very close second.)

In that vein, David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory is similarly lucid, easy to access and knowledgeable. I acquired it from a friend, and it became a constant companion during my dissertation (I took photographs of all the pages I wanted before I finally, and somewhat more permanently, borrowed it from him, because there were always more entries that I wanted to read).

These two books meant I’ve been dipping in and out of theory all month, and reading entries and pondering them, rather than reading actual books.

In this vein, I realised during a theoretical discussion with friends that my knowledge of the history of Marxism is disappointingly scant. I’ve stayed away from political philosophy largely because I had so much to already study, I didn’t find it quite interesting enough to drag me away from, say, structuralism, but I’m much more interested now in the way that politics, philosophy and literature are all bound up together. I need to study political thought and ideology in more depth, so I thought I’d start with Marxism, since the conversation I was sparking off was one in which we were expressing discomfort at the way a group of Socialist students were bullying some Conservatives, tearing up their posters and jumping on their tables, because freedom of speech is not an excuse for being such a shit to other people who are still people, no matter how much you disagree with them.

To that end, because there was a book about Marxism to hand, I started reading it. Introducing Marx was written by Rius, a Mexican intellectual and cartoonist (doesn’t that sound like an appealing career plan?), and originally published in the 70s (apparently, it’s been translated into twelve languages and has sold over a million copies). It’s a witty, incisive introduction to the life and thoughts of Marx, with a little of the history of Western philosophy thrown in, via some very funny illustrations and asides that manage to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m halfway through it at the moment, and I’m enjoying it very much.

I’ve also been reading Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, a riotous and delightful tour of a culture clash that satirises culture, religion, and focuses on a subject for which I have a great soft spot, Ancient Egypt. It is also witty and incisive, and a fondly ironic exploration of human foibles and fallacies, with gods, more gods, some magnificent humour and a joke on page 243 that I think he was quietly setting up all the rest of the novel, which made me cry with laughter.

H. G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall was part of three books of short stories, Penguin Mini Classics, that I bought on impulse because they were on 3-for-2 in a bookshop in Bristol. I haven’t got very far into it, but I think it deserves an honourable mention because the beginning is absolutely brilliant. I love Wells, I am very much looking forward to reading more of it – and to reading the other books I bought, which hopefully will appear in an update one of these months.

I’ve been dipping into Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, as well, because it’s the most practical-minded cookery book I think I’ve ever come across, but it’s also cannily and wittily written, with asides between recipes full of ideas and instructions. Her basic premise is that ‘although it’s possible to love eating without being able to cook, I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating’ – hence the title – and that the reader needs ‘to acquire your own individual sense of what food is about, rather than just [read] a vast collection of recipes’. That is pretty much aligned with my idea of food, what cooking is and should be. What I love most, aside from the fact that it encourages the reader to both try new things and to trust their instincts, is that all of the recipes ‘have been cooked in what television people call Real Time’, so that they’re practical to make, not outlandishly complicated or flashy. Also, her index is incredible: green bullet points against recipes that are vegetarian, pink bullet points against recipes that will take half an hour to make – and over half of the recipes have one or the other next to them. It is an excellent, excellent book, and I look forward to it informing my cooking.

Following a cinema trip to see Jane Eyre, I realised that I’ve never actually really finished it – I’ve read parts, and skimmed over all the rest of it. I started reading it on iBooks, on my phone, but it didn’t really seem the same; I’m currently waiting for my mother to post me my copy from home. I’m re-reading the end, because that was the part where I noticed some changes in the film, but couldn’t remember how much the film did change things for cinematic expediency. But again, I wanted to mention it because it’s on my mind, and I am going back and having thoughts about it, but I probably shouldn’t profess those thoughts until I’ve actually read the whole thing.

This is a much longer post than I expected to get out of September, which I thought was a bit of an anticlimax after how much I read during the summer. With the start of my MA, though, I think I’ll be doing a lot more, and more rigorous, reading from now on. And I have to say I’m looking forward to it very much.

Bibliodyssey: August

So, considerably sooner than my updates for June and July, here is my update for August.

August also included mad commuting and travelling, but with the added excitement of coming down with the flu, so my reading output fluctuated between ‘read a million pages, I’m bored’, ‘too busy to breathe’ and ‘so tired I can’t even focus on the pages’.

Read: Fleabag and the Ring Fire, The Eye of the World*, The Great Hunt*, The Dragon Reborn*, three volumes of the manga/manhwa One Thousand and One Nights and I began part one of the three-volume full version of the Tales from the Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights.


Fleabag and the Ring Fire, by Beth Webb, is a book that I have begun reading many times, but as I don’t own it, I’ve never quite got to the end. While working on a writing course with Beth in early August, I found a copy in a box of her books and devoured it during my lunch breaks. It was wonderful – a fantasy quest that contains plenty of common sense (something that I find lacking from far too much modern fantasy). Fleabag himself – a sharp-tempered, three-legged black cat – has become one of my favourite characters of all time. I can’t wait for my reading list to diminish so that I can get on to the sequels.

On a whim in Cathays Library one day I flicked through the three volumes of a manwha (the Korean equivalent of manga) adaptation of The Thousand and One Nights, because I was waiting for my copy of the originals to be delivered from Amazon (more on that story later). It was a version where a young man dressed himself up as a virgin girl in order to take his sister’s place in the sultan’s harem, and ended up telling stories to save his own life. There was considerably more focus on the plot of the sultan/Sehara than the stories, though, and on the relationships between the characters, loyalties and romances breaking out all over the place. It was very much in the genre of manwha, which I thought was a shame, because it lost some of the power of the originals, but it wasn’t a bad read.

I also re-read the first three books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. I took The Eye of the World with me on my bus journeys to and from Edinburgh, reasoning that I wouldn’t need to pay as much attention to a book I already know and so it would help pass the time faster. (It did.) What struck me was that even though Jordan’s style of writing becomes more sophisticated over the course of the story, his intimate knowledge of his fictional ontology showed through even in the opening pages of the book. He clearly knew the world in which he was working, and it is a huge strength of his writing that his world is so convincing. That kind of logic is something I really enjoy when I find it, especially in fantasy writing (see my rant on David Eddings below for many other things I dislike in modern fantasy). After reading The Eye of the World I worked my way through The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn, both of which I enjoyed immensely, not least because I could see where the series was going to go.

I have to confess, though, that I ended up skipping a lot of the chapters with Rand, because he’s not so exciting once you know what’s happening to him. Perrin, though, Perrin, he remains my favourite favourite character – again, common sense! And logic! And he’s so lovely! I love a thoughtful fantasy hero.

My final book for August, which I haven’t finished, and probably won’t for some time, is the first volume of a three-part full translation of all 1001 tales of The Arabian Nights. I prefer calling them The Thousand and One Nights, actually, because The Arabian Nights sounds terribly post-colonial inside my head. Maybe that’s just me. I’m up to about Night 28, dipping in and out of them, and they are magnificent. I have a children’s version of the most famous tales of Scheherezade, and I always loved her, from when I was very young, because she was clever and a girl and she told amazing stories and out-witted the sultan. Then I realised earlier this year that I must only have a vague impression of the text, because 1001 nights is 1001 stories, and decided that I wanted to know them better. There’s far too much for me to comment on for me to do any justice to them here, but they are interesting, absorbing, poetic tales that reveal a great deal about medieval Islamic culture. I’m doing a lot of thinking while reading them, which is good for the brains, and I’m enjoying them very much.

Right. That brings me about up to date with the bibliodyssey. Now I need to get over this flu, get some more reading done and have something to talk about for September.

Bibliodyssey: Belated Update for July

July and August were the months when my summer was most chaotic, because I was temping in Stratford most weeks, in Cardiff for the not-quite-weekends and then one week I was working down in Somerset and another I was off up to Edinburgh. Regardless, reading was done, but I haven’t kept a very good record of what I read when, so I’m going to arbitrarily divide my list into halves so that my post isn’t ridiculously long, and promise to take better notes in future.

Read: American Gods*, The Magic in the Pool of Making, The Silver Wolf*, Thud*, Lords and Ladies*, The Hobbit*. I also started The Fellowship of the Ring, but then I left it behind when I came back to Cardiff, because I didn’t have room to bring all three books and dividing up the volumes would be asking for trouble.

I’m sure I read more, but I can’t for the life of me think what it was, so I’ll start with what I’ve got. And I think I’m going to start marking re-reads with stars, just for the sake of keeping record.


While I was temping, I worked in a call centre, and luckily for me I worked the weekends when we were allowed to read at our desks. I worked out pretty early on, though, that it was best to read material that you could drop into and out of, which explains the majority of the re-reads on this list.

Terry Pratchett’s Thud and Lords and Ladies helped me to survive many hours of paid boredom on the phones – both beautifully constructed, witty, knowing and hysterically funny. If you haven’t read Pratchett yet, stop being lazy and/or a snob and get on with it. And if you tell me that you don’t want to ‘because they’re fantasy’, I don’t even need to go to the effort of criticising you, because you’ve damned yourself with your pure ignorance out of your own mouth and all I need to do is relax in the knowledge that I have delicious satirical Pratchett books and you do not.

I’m feisty today. Deal with it. You should see my power hair, it’s incredible.

Another re-read that you should get on to reading if you haven’t read it already is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It is everything that I have ever wanted from a book, and more, because it is so long yet unwinds like the most perfect of clockworks. It is a tour de force of thought, social commentary and mythology, and its rhetoric is something that amazes me every time and is probably going to wangle its way into my MA dissertation, because some of the things Gaiman does are so subtle and so unusual. It’s also a cracking good story. And every time I re-read it the image of Charles Dance as Wednesday gets stronger.

The Hobbit I re-read after realising that the last time I read it I was considerably shorter and less sophisticated than I am now (that is to say, a child, I don’t mean when I didn’t have my heels on last week) and after a long conversation on the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (I’m a compulsive caster. I love casting people inside my head. And sometimes in actual productions, too. You know, when I can). And I loved every word of it, again, probably even more than I did when I was a kid. I was also privileged to record a few chapters as part of a personal audiobook project for a friend of mine, and it was so much fun to read out loud. It translates beautifully to speech.

The last re-read on my list is The Silver Wolf, by Alice Borchardt – a book with something of a history among my friends, simply because we either had three copies or one that was passed around, and somehow all of them/it mysteriously disappeared, and none of us are in the habit of misplacing books. I located another copy years later, lent it to a friend, promptly did not see it for a few years until its triumphant return this summer. I had a lot of thoughts while reading The Silver Wolf, the main one of which is ‘But it had so much potential!’. It does have a lot of potential, and some really lovely ideas, but I felt like the book I was holding in my hands was still a second draft. I found myself wishing I’d got my hands on it to do an edit job before it had gone to print, because some poor delivery, a few obvious tropes and a little clunky writing brought down a story that has fantastic concepts, memorable characters and a great attitude. (There will probably be more of this on my Edits blog at a future time. If/when it comes up, I will link it here.)

An impulse-but-more-compulse buy that I am delighted to have on this list is The Magic in the Pool of Making, by Beth Webb. You may or may not know that Beth, author of many books for children and young adults, has been my mentor and great friend since I was but a little brat, and I have worked with her on writing courses for some time now. (Another book of hers, Wave Hunter, has just come out and is sitting looking at me demanding to be read. It is on the September List.)

Anyway, I saw The Magic in the Pool of Making in a charity shop around the corner from my house and realised that I hadn’t actually read it, so I promptly purchased and perused, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a compelling story that contains a complex and unpatronising meditation on value, race, society and ethics, and I read it three times in two days, I enjoyed it so much.

Anyway. That is my summary for July. It’s time to boil the kettle and dig up the notes for August.

Bibliodyssey: Belated Update for June

So I have had a slightly busy and chaotic summer, temping in Warwickshire, teaching in Somerset and spending my weekends in Cardiff. So though I did get some reading done, it wasn’t as much as I would have liked, and I certainly didn’t get the chance to update. I’m going to get my updates out of the way now, though, before the new year and new degree. And I’m going to try keeping on top of things, because I know I’ve forgotten to write down some of the books I read, and it is bugging me like hell that I can’t remember what they are.

Because I was so busy, I also relaxed my stance on re-reads. I was intending to avoid the comfort of re-reads, but in the end, what with travelling around and tiredness, I ended up picking them up anyway. I did, however, manage to start a project I’ve been meaning to work through for some time, but more on that later.


Read: the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Medea, The Demon’s Surrender, E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Good Omens and The Duchess of Malfi

June was a good month. I did start as I meant to go on: I re-read Anna Akhmatova‘s work and was once again spellbound by their power and their simplicity. Their quiet, cutting force is just breathtaking. ‘And the miraculous comes so close / to the ruined, dirty houses – / something not known to anyone at all, / but wild in our breast for centuries.’ Her words are inspirational.

James Morwood’s translation of Euripides’ Medea was very interesting, because it helped to crystallise some thoughts I had been having on the fallacy of pointing out universalisations in gender roles, and how interesting it is that something can be simultaneously so tied to the Athenian world-model and so powerful and resonant today. There were jarring aspects of his translation, however, a few peculiar phrases and surprising modern colloquialisms that threw the feelings of a couple of scenes off-kilter, but overall I enjoyed it very much.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Surrender was a subtle, satisfying, heartbreaking and heartwarming conclusion to a trilogy in which I have been invested for a number of years. I’ve followed her blog since she was a parodist of renown in fandom, and it feels like a very personal kind of triumph to see her complete her first trilogy with such satisfaction. I loved and completely approved of her change of perspective – it was so satisfying to see an author so comfortable with having her characters misunderstand things and to get them wrong. It was also fantastic to see some of the central relationships viewed from the point of view of an outsider, to be torturing yourself going “Oh but I’m sure she misunderstood that! Could that mean this? Does it mean this?” I enjoyed it thoroughly.

E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel was a book that I half-read in my first year of university, because though I thought it was absolutely brilliant, I only got halfway through before I promptly had to read a million other books. So I decided that at the end of my degree – bearing in mind the half of the book that I read hugely influenced my thinking – was high time to finish it. I read it twice on holiday in Portugal, and I absolutely loved it, and berated myself for not finishing it sooner. It was brilliant – incisive, decisive, critical and fascinating. A must for anybody who even thinks that they like books, whether writing, reading or criticising them.

I re-read Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, too, and it is and always will be a hot contender for my favourite book. It’s just so full of things that I love: irreverence, mythology, satire, warmth, wit and ideological conflict. A magnificent book.

And I also re-read, several times, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, because I want to cut it and direct my own version, and also because it is the play that is performed in the screenplay I’m currently working on. It is one of my favourite plays, and its power and politics and subtleties are just wonderful. I have always loved Renaissance drama, and this is one of the best. Rich, complex, unstable and compelling, the characters have sat in my head since I first read it. It’s an incredible text, and I can’t wait to cut it and do my own version.

I think that’s my summary for June. I’m going to try doing this a book at a time, so that I can do them justice. I have notes for my August reading but not July, so I may lump them in together and take care of that one next – hopefully later today or tomorrow.