I am so sorry for my absence on the blog recently! I have just moved to Hong Kong for the year to teach English as a foreign language and It has been crazy! I have been training for the past week (I will be teaching my first lesson tomorrow!) and I still have another week to go. Hopefully once I am settled in at my centre and become familiar with the syllabus I can start blogging again.
A few weeks ago, in the middle of July, I travelled to Bruges with my mum for a few days break. We jumped on the Eurostar from Ebbsfleet and arrived a few hours later in the beautiful, fairy-tale town of Bruges – sometimes known as the ‘Venice of the North’. I don’t think I have ever seen a more perfect city so far in my short, travelling life. Though, not only was it a picturesque destination to visit, it was also packed full of things to do. Not one for relaxing and taking it easy (especially when time is of the essence), I pestered my mum with numerous museum and exhibition visits.
One of the first things I was eager to see, since discovering a blossoming love for Michelangelo’s sculptures in Florence, was his Madonna and Child – one of the only Michelangelo sculptures to leave Italy in his lifetime. Aside from the fact that it was sculpted by the one and only Michelangelo, the Madonna and Child also has an interesting history. Twice since its instalment in the Church of Our Lady, Bruges, it has been removed. Once by French revolutionaries in 1794 and again during the Second World War, in 1944, when it was smuggled out of the country by retreating German soldiers. Luckily, both times, it was found and returned safely in one piece.
Keeping with the theme of art I picked out one museum I really wanted to visit. I am not an expert in Flemish painting but from my research I found that the Groeninge Museum was the best gallery to visit. Housing over six centuries of art in Belgium, from Jan van Eyck to Marcel Broodthaers, this small, spacious museum was the perfect choice to gain a taster of all things artistic that Belgium has to offer. I was also thrilled to find exhibitions (however random) of Picasso, Warhol and Salvador Dali dotted around the city centre and I made sure to visit the Old St. John’s Hospital (Sint Jans Hospitaal) which houses a few Hans Memling paintings.
In terms of literature I wanted to see the home of Guido Gazelle, a Bruges-born poet famous for writing in his West Flemish dialect. As the Poetry International website states, ‘Gezelle is generally considered as one of the masters of 19th-century European lyric poetry. At the end of his life and in the first two decades of the 20th century, Gezelle was hailed by the avant-garde as the founder of modern Flemish poetry, and his unique voice was also belatedly recognised in the Netherlands and often compared with his English contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins’. I admit this was another revelation I found as I was researching what to see and do in Bruges but it was a lovely find. Gazelle’s home, on the outskirts of the city – near the four remaining windmills that line the east of the canal-ring – has been turned into a small, quirky museum. Although everything was written in Flemish, there were English booklets with some of his translated poetry in it. The gardens were also beautiful!
So, aside from gallivanting around endless exhibitions and museums and trying out some of the best fruit beers, chocolates and Belgian waffles on offer, I drove my mum crazy with the amount of pictures I took! It truly is a beautiful little city, here are just a few from my camera:
‘Was that the beginning, that evening – on the dock at Avilion, with the fireworks dazzling the sky? It’s hard to know. Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.232
The Blind Assassin begins with one of the most memorable lines I have read in fiction – ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge’. Atwood doesn’t start at the ‘beginning’ but delves right into the crux of the story. Told from the perspective of 83-year-old Iris Chase Griffen who is writing down her truth for the benefit of a grandchild she hasn’t seen for decades, The Blind Assassin unpacks the difficult and precarious task of remembering. There are, in fact, numerous layers of narrative embedded in this slow-moving, yet incredibly intriguing, tale. Newspaper clippings, family history, revisited childhood memories, excerpts of ‘The Blind Assassin’ – a fictional and scandalous story presumably written by Iris’s sister, Laura, and posthumously published – and the actual blind assassin within this story-within-a-story are all threaded through a narrative that is surprisingly easy to follow. Though each layer adds to the difficulty of trying to form a coherent whole in order to find the ‘truth’, Atwood artfully achieves this seamless narrative, creating a novel that is well-deserving of the Man Booker Prize.
Spanning the breadth of the twentieth century, Iris remembers back to a time before her and Laura were born. Beginning with the inception of her grandfather’s button-factory – of which they are still reaping the benefits, though in a somewhat declining way – and the romanticised account of her grandmother Adelia, Iris paints a vivid picture of the family home she was brought up in, Avilion. She also recounts the history of her father who, along with his two brothers, enters into the First World War voluntarily and is the sole Chase survivor. On his return he takes up his father’s button-factory business and marries a sensible, religious woman.
‘[...] my father was now an atheist. Over the trenches God had burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy. Religion was just a stick to beat the soldiers with, and anyone who declared otherwise was full of pious drivel. What had been served by the gallantry of Percy and Eddie – by their bravery, their hideous deaths? What had been accomplished? They’d been killed by the blunderings of a pack of incompetent and criminal old men who might just as well have cut their throats and heaved them over the side of the SS Caledonian. All the talk of fighting for God and Civilisation made him vomit’.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, Pg.96
July has been a whirlwind of a month. I can’t quite believe it is almost over and that in exactly two weeks I will be setting up home for the next year in Hong Kong. I am definitely starting to feel nervous now. I finish work tomorrow at the wonderful charity Greenwich Mencap and I also finish volunteering at Oxfam Bookshop next week, so it is all starting to feel real now – there is no going back!
Anyway, July has been an excellent month in terms of reading. I mentioned before that I am trying to read more than usual so I can schedule some posts for the first few weeks in Hong Kong. This was helped by Emma Louise’s brilliant #sunathon, where I managed to read four books in one week. I also found it a wonderful way of interacting with fellow book-bloggers and book-lovers via Twitter. In the middle of July I had a few days break in the beautiful city of Bruges with my mum. We took the Eurostar and had an amazing time eating lots of Belgian cuisine (and by cuisine I mean chocolate and waffles) and tasting a variety of different beers. I inevitably dragged my mum along to many museums and exhibitions, which I will write a post about shortly. Also, on Monday I had the pleasure of attending a talk at the British Library called 1914: Goodbye to All That and curated by the poet, Lavinia Greenlaw. Greenlaw had invited ten world-renowned writers from countries that were involved in the First World War to respond to Robert Grave’s autobiography Goodbye to All That and reflect on artistic freedom in the face of conflict. Before the talk, which was held in the Conference Hall, I was able to squeeze in the free Folio Society exhibition in the foyer of the British Library. They are currently holding a temporary exhibition entitled Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour. I will eventually get round to writing up longer posts on both of these. Lastly, I was very lucky to be nominated by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Karen has been one of my first followers on this blog since I started last August and she has always read and commented on my posts, so thank you! I will make sure to post about this and nominate other inspiring book-bloggers soon.
- The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
Books read in July:
- Strange Girls and Ordinary Women by Morgan McCarthy
- Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (review to come)
- The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (review to come)
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (review to come)
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (review to come)
- My Baby Shot Me Down ed. Richard Penny (review to come)
- Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter (review to come)
- Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson (review to come)
- The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (review to come)
Books started but abandoned:
- The Poppy Factory by Liz Trenow – I received this via Netgalley but just couldn’t connect with it so gave up.
Interesting bookish-related outings:
Interesting bookish-related articles read in July:
- Interview with Laurie Penny @ Curious Animal Magazine
- Women’s Poetry of World War 1 @ All Poetry
- Untold stories of the war @ The Guardian
- #ThisBook Campaign Top Twenty Books @ Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
- Exclusive interview with the authors of My Baby Shot Me Down @ Female First
- Man Booker 2014: more global, less diverse @ The Guardian
- Margaret Atwood doesn’t see herself as prolific @ The Star
- How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran, book review: Potato-peeler strikes a blow for teenage liberation @ The Independent
July in pictures:
As I said earlier, I will be moving to Hong Kong in August to start a new job. Before this, however, I have tried to book in as many events and things to do in London as possible. I have tickets for The Crucible at The Old Vic Theatre, 1984 at The Playhouse Theatre and the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I am also planning on going to the Suffragettes: Deeds not Words exhibition (which is free) at the National Portrait Gallery, the new First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum and to see as many of the other BookBenches as I can. I will also be frantically trying to write up all those book reviews before I go – wish me luck! On the reading front, I think I will take it easy!
Emma Louise‘s #sunathon has sadly come to an end, though it has been such a wonderful week full of sunshine and reading. I couldn’t have asked for a better readathon to experience for the first time. Not only did I find it an amazing way to push myself to read more than I would usually read in a week, but it also encouraged me to Tweet more. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of book-bloggers and book-lovers out there – and how friendly and welcoming everyone was – and Emma’s #sunathon really highlighted this. She was also a brilliant host, making sure to retweet every single #sunathon tweet (there were loads!) and held daily competitions and regular Q&A sessions.
Now, onto the books! I managed to read almost all the books I set out to read in my original #sunathon post. I finished Eleanor Catton’s debut, The Rehearsal, yesterday so I am going to say that counts! Overall that is a total of 925 pages! I am usually lucky if I get through four books in a month so reading these four books in a week was a major achievement for me. Over the next couple of weeks I will start writing up my reviews. I am deliberately ahead in my reading (I usually read a book and post my thoughts straight after) because I am hoping to get some posts scheduled for my first month away in Hong Kong. I start work the day after I arrive so I think the first few weeks will be the most hectic, which means I probably won’t have much time to read let alone review (though I will make time to read and comment on other people’s blogs).
I really enjoyed all four of the books I chose to read. I think it really worked for me having a variety of fiction, non-fiction and prose/poems. The highlight has to be My Baby Shot Me Down, an anthology of ten new female writers published this year by Blinding Books. I have found some brilliant new writers, such as Rachael Smart – who has a wonderful blog, Offcuts, and whose writing reminds me of one of my favourite writers of all time, Angela Carter, though Rachael’s writing is brilliant in its own right – and Maggy van Eijk – whose poetry is amazing – amongst many others. The themes range from childhood and identity to relationships and sex in new and original ways. It truly is a refreshing read and I cannot recommend it enough (I will post a full ‘review’/thoughts soon!).
Thanks again to Emma for hosting. I look forward to her #fallathon in October!
‘This is not a fairy tale.
This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine’.
Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.1
I have never read any of Laurie Penny’s work before. However, as I was idly browsing Twitter one day on the bus I saw a link to an article on the Cosmopolitan website called ‘Why I don’t believe in The One’. I can’t remember how I came across it (because I don’t follow Cosmopolitan and gave up wasting my money on it years ago when I realised how deeply narrow-minded it’s view of female sexuality was) but I was intrigued by the title and clicked on the link to have a little read. I definitely liked what I saw and agreed wholeheartedly with Laurie Penny’s belief that ‘the notion of The One is profoundly unromantic’. I then saw at the bottom of the article that her book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, would be out that same week. As luck would have it I was on my way to the Waterstones Café in Greenwich at the time so I thought I would have a quick look for it. I know that I am supposed to be limiting my book-buying to the Kindle in preparation for the big move, but I reasoned that I would read it straight away (which I did!) so it wouldn’t matter. It seemed like I was destined to buy the book as it was right there on the new releases shelf, just waiting for me, at the front of the store:
Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things does exactly what it sets out to do – it offers a raw and honest account of the gender constraints under a neoliberal and capitalist society that views gender as a commodity. It voices a harsh reality that is true for many, though at no point does it claim to speak for everybody – ‘I am not writing as Everygirl, because there’s no such thing’ (pg.10). It is a heart-rending tale of female oppression – particularly ‘poor women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould’ (my only criticism is that it could do this more), but it also highlights how (some) men are also hurt by the ‘straightjacket’ of stereotypically constructed gender roles.
I have been aware of Books About Town for a while now and was extremely excited to learn that they were unveiled on 2nd July all across London and they are here for the summer! For those not aware, Books About Town is a co-partnership between the National Literacy Trust and Wild in Art, which both seek to promote reading and increase literacy levels across the UK. For one summer only, local and professional artists have come together to design individual BookBenches that have been scattered across the capital and will eventually be auctioned off to raise funds.
One of my aims before I move to Hong Kong is to explore each of the four BookBench trails in London – from the Greenwich Trail to Bloomsbury Trail to City Trail and Riverside Trail. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there is a specific Greenwich Trail and, as this is the closest place to where I live, I thought it was only fitting to start there. It is easy, when you have lived in a place for the majority of your life, to overlook the reasons why Greenwich is such a wonderful tourist hotspot. From its beautiful royal park and historic buildings to its rich maritime history and bustling indoor market situated on the River Thames, Greenwich village is always a busy little place any time of the year.
Having had a look at the Book Trail Map, I thought the best route would be to start at Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planet 42 BookBench, which is placed just outside of Greenwich Overground Station. That way, I could walk through the back streets – passing the Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary BookBench – to reach Greenwich Park where several of the BookBenches are positioned. I could then head in the direction of the Royal Observatory, past the bandstand, to the enclosed flower gardens and then loop back down towards the sandpit across to The National Maritime Museum. From there I can walk to the university grounds and the Cutty Sark and then end up back in the direction of the station to see the last BookBench – Sue Townsend’s The Diary of Adrian Mole – near St Alfege’s Church.
Here are my pictures:
I will be taking part in Emma Louise‘s #sunathon this coming week, which will kick off the summer with a seven day event to read as much as possible and to bring readers together in the act of reading. Aside from the one book review I intend to post at some point this week, I will be making it my aim to get through as many of the books pictured above.
From top to bottom:
- My Baby Shot Me Down, ed. Richard Penny – poetry and prose by ten new women writers. As the blurb on Blinding Books states: ‘Expect full-bodied and full-blooded’. Just how I like my literature!
- Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson – I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing so it is about time I revisited her work. Written on the Body is a story of ‘self-discovery made through the metaphors of desire and disease’.
- Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter – inspired by reading Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism a few weeks ago, I have had Walter’s book sitting on my shelf for months and it follows a similar message of the damaging effects of sexism in society today, though it was published a couple of years before the inception of the everyday sexism project, in 2010. As a Guardian review states, Walter ‘paints a frightening picture of the personal’.
- The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton – after reading her Man Booker prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, I have been eager to read her debut novel. Revolving around a high school scandal, The Rehearsal could not sound more different to her Victorian-esque sensation novel, The Luminaries.
I have no idea which order I will read these in – I will decide on my mood at the time – though I have deliberately picked a variety of books to get through this following week, from fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose. Hopefully I will have a successful #sunathon!
I will be tracking my progress via Twitter @RoseYasmineRose.