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Saturday, 13 January 2018

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, V&A

The V&A has opened its doors to one of our most beloved bears, and visitors can now get a glimpse of the Hundred Acre Woods as they step into this enchanting exhibition. The space has been beautifully decorated with blown-up versions of Shepard’s famous illustrations. You can step through the door of Owl’s home, cross Poohsticks Bridge, and cosy up in a tree trunk to listen to a story. It’s an incredibly child-friendly display but it is a wonderful outing for adults as well, demonstrating the timeless appeal of Milne’s characters.

You are first greeted by a display showcasing how far-reaching merchandising for Winnie the Pooh has gone. From exercise books to dress, music to a tea set owned by Queen Elizabeth from her childhood, there’s no escaping the popularity of Winnie and friends. The exhibition focuses mainly on the original artwork but does acknowledge Disney’s rebranding in 1966 and the now familiar look they created.

The exhibition is a veritable treasure trove of delights. There are photos of Milne with Christopher Robin and Edward bear (though Shepard in reality based his drawings on his own son’s teddy, Growler). There are original manuscripts and correspondence between Milne and Shepard as well as sketchbooks that show how much work went into creating this iconic world. The main bulk of the items on display are original drawings by Shepard, and it is clear what a symbiotic partnership it became – there’s even an example of Milne adding an extra scene to incorporate one of the drawings.

All in all a gem of an exhibition that is bound to banish the January blues. It is open at the V&A until 8th April. 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Pullman’s greatly anticipated return to the world of His Dark Materials hit shelves late last year. The story is set a decade before Northern Lights and focuses on Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent and inquisitive child. He lives and works in his parents’ inn, the Trout, and is friendly with the nuns at Godstow Priory, just across the water. The nuns take in a baby named Lyra under a certain amount of secrecy and Malcolm soon finds himself attached to his young neighbour. His innocent life is shaken up when he sees a stranger lose an acorn and then be confronted by a group of threatening looking men. This leads our young protagonist into a world of intrigue, spies, and alethiometers.

There’s also the problem of Gerard Bonneville, a seemingly friendly man whose three-legged hyena daemon shows his true, dark nature. A scientist and pedophile, he is even witnessed attacking his own daemon, an action that is practically unheard of. When the flood comes and the Priory is badly damaged, Malcolm attempts to take Lyra to safety on his trusty canoe, La Belle Sauvage, with the help of Alice – a churlish employee of the Trout. In their attempt to return Lyra to her father in London they are hounded ruthlessly by Bonneville who wants her for far more sinister purposes. They also have to try to avoid the Consistorial Court of Discipline, but it is Bonneville who is relentless in following them. He becomes an eerie, much-feared figure who the reader will feel great distaste for.

There is a real sense of claustrophobia and distrust in the early parts of the novel with the League of St Alexander giving children power over their elders by reporting them for not toeing the line. As Malcolm comes to understand the complexity of the world around him you feel all the uncertainty with him, never quite sure of whose intentions are honourable. During the flood, although some of the situations occasionally feel a tad far-fetched, the desperation and suffering is vividly written, bringing the struggles that the children face to life. It is all too easy to forget how young they are.

With Pullman’s latest offering you feel you are in safe hands with this experienced and masterful storyteller. Whether you’re a Dark Materials superfan, a general reader, or new to this fictional world, you’re bound to enjoy this thrilling adventure tale with the bigger philosophical and theological preoccupations woven throughout.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year musings

Here we are, once again, on the brink of a new year and wishing a fond farewell to the year that’s passed. 2017 has been a challenging year for the world generally with worrying political situations, the loss of some well loved figures, and more terrorist attacks than I care to count. I hope for a more peaceful and kinder 2018.

Personally 2017 was quite an eventful year with its ups and downs. I want to take this time to reflect on the good times, the positive changes, the places that took my breath away, and the books that captured my imagination. If I were to sum up what I’ve learnt this year in a sentence it would be to take care of yourself and find time for the things (and people) you love. I’ve done this professionally this year, switching my focus from the daily grind to explore ways to find a more fulfilling life. That’s not to say I’m not working hard, in many ways I’d say I’m working even harder, but if you find the right focus for that work it can make you so much happier. Another thing that has become so important to me is yoga. I’d never done it before this year but now have a daily practice, mostly under the guidance of Adriene Mishler through Yoga with Adriene. Honestly, this has been one of my best discoveries of the year. If you want to strengthen your body whilst also tending to your mental health I can’t recommend her Yoga Camp series highly enough.

Other big news – I finally put pen to paper and got some words down for my first novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo to give me a push in the right direction, and it definitely worked. I may not have officially ‘won’ NaNo but I have words on a page that weren’t there before and a much better writing routine. As far as I’m concerned that is a win. I also engaged with the group of writers around the world taking the time to create. This was a wonderful encouragement and source of advice as well as giving me a genuine feeling of joy thinking about the mass creative output happening throughout the month.

Travel has been a highlight of the year. Within the UK I had opportunity to spend more time in beautiful Cornwall as well as the chance to visit Haworth once more, a place that feels something like my spiritual/inspirational home. I was also lucky enough to go to France once more and enjoy the natural beauty of the Alps in autumn (whilst eating copious amounts of cheese). The big trip, however, was Australia. I was fortunate to travel around the east of the country and experience some breathtakingly beautiful places, including snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. More on all of this if I ever find the time to write up more detailed posts from my travels.

Reading-wise I continued with my tradition of reading books written or set in the countries I visit, which this year also included taking the plunge with books in French, which I'm still working my way through. Bill Bryson’s Down Under entertained me, but may have convinced me that I would likely die while out there (I returned mostly unscathed I’m happy to report). I also caught a glimpse of the desert through Robyn Davidson’s Tracks and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lyndsay provided some atmospheric mystery to spark my imagination. Overall, there haven’t been any great stand-out books for me this year. Good books certainly, but none that I remember completely absorbing me (excluding the re-read of Wuthering Heights of course). There are more books in my to-read pile than I would have time for this year so it could go any way, but I definitely intend to read my first George Eliot soon.

It was a strong year for exhibitions – when in Melbourne I thoroughly enjoyed the Aardman exhibition at the ACMI. It was fun and playful and showcased some incredible talent. Closer to home, the Opera exhibition at the V&A and the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library were definitely highlights. See my full posts for why. Both still open, so it’s not too late to enjoy them. A smaller offering from the National Portrait Gallery, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt left a big impression. It was wonderful to see sketches done by such masters, and honestly the experience improved my own work. As for what I’ll be visiting this year – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A promises to be delightful, and Tate Britain’s Impressionists in London looks promising.

As always, let me know what you’re reading, what you’re visiting, or where you’re travelling. All that’s left to do now is wish you all a very happy and healthy 2018. See you on the other side.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Cosy Christmas Chocolate Shop, Caroline Roberts

Set in a small village by the sea, we follow chocolatier Emma through a year of trying to make ends meet and build the courage to love again. By the second chapter it is Boxing Day and she has already been kissed by a stranger whilst out walking her dog. The mysterious man plays on her mind but her focus has to be on increasing income to help her cover the recent rent increase her landlord has imposed. With the help of her chirpy assistant Holly, and other loves ones, she has grand plans for her cosy chocolate shop.

In all honesty, I almost gave up on this book very early on. It is not well written and I struggled to see past this. I persevered however and at times got caught up in the story. There were moments that made me cringe they were so difficult to read, but even if you don’t end up entirely attached to the characters the descriptions of the shop itself do evoke feelings of warmth and comfort (and make you crave chocolate…). There is some attempt to add some intrigue with the constant referencing of Emma’s previous partner Luke, but no explanation of what happened between them. It was no great revelation when it was finally revealed, and the avoidance of explaining earlier became somewhat frustrating when it felt so obvious.

The to-ing and fro-ing with her love interest Max can feel a little abrupt occasionally but you do root for them, especially when things seem about to fall apart for good at the end. Her pain feels real however, and her reluctance to open her heart to new love is genuine.

The host of characters is likeable and if you’re looking for an easy feel-good read over the festive season then this will provide you with all the expected tropes, though I’m sure there are books that would fill you with Christmas joy with more polished writing.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, British Library

As soon as you step into the exhibition space you know you’re in for a treat – books hang from the ceiling, the walls are decorated to look like you’re in Hogwarts, and before you’ve even got your bearings you’ve already seen the synopsis J K Rowling sent out to prospective publishers and the note from the publisher’s daughter giving it a glowing review. The British Library have clearly put a lot of effort into getting the aesthetics right. Each room focuses on a specific subject that Harry and his friends study, and the décor fits beautifully – a large celestial globe with pricks of light on dark material above, a Divination room that makes you feel as though you are in Trelawney’s classroom, and a Herbology area draped with fake plants. These touches help transport the visitor to the world of magic.

The content itself is carefully balanced between historic artefacts and books, and items from Rowling’s personal collection that no fan will want to miss. The vast sixteenth century Ripley Scroll shows you how to make your very own Philosopher’s Stone, a 3000 year old cauldron takes pride of place in Potions, and Nicolas Flamel’s gravestone is tucked unassumingly into a corner. Sadly this is accompanied by a note that will disillusion anyone under the impression that he really was an alchemist.

The glut of Jim Kay artworks on display are quite something to behold, seeing the originals a special experience. We’re also treated to early drafts of scenes from the books, and annotated manuscripts. There’s even some hand-drawn pictures by Rowling from the early days when she wanted to be able to see the world she was creating. Last but not least comes an impressive chart over multiple pages of her plotting for The Order of the Phoenix. Knowing that she had all seven books planned before Philosopher’s Stone made it to bookshelves is mind-blowing.

I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. Well thought out and beautifully achieved, you’ll find real treasures within, and a couple of interactive opportunities that adults and children alike will enjoy. Running until 28th February, if you love Harry Potter you need to get a ticket. For more details, visit the British Library's website

Friday, 8 December 2017

A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf - Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney delve into the archives to explore the literary friendships of four of our most beloved female authors. They believe that female literary friendships are greatly under-researched, especially when compared to the fame of many of the male equivalents. What becomes apparent throughout however, is that this is often due, in part at least, to a lack of evidence, often the result of deliberate actions of the custodians of their memories. 

This is certainly true of the first of their examples: Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, for which they explain ‘Jane’s family actively whitewashed the friendship from the official version of her life’. This results in a heavy reliance on Austen’s niece, Fanny, who Annie was employed to teach as a governess. It is the snippets and passing comments in her diaries that form the basis of this section. It often feels as though we are merely being told about their two separate lives with a few nods to interactions between them. This is natural from friends who were separated so frequently and whose letters no longer exist for the most part.

Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor’s friendship, which started at school and lasted through their lives, also relied heavily o the exchange of letters as Taylor spent a number of years living in New Zealand. A radical, independent woman, Taylor provided Charlotte with intellectual stimulation and challenged her to be more overtly political in her writing. Their closeness naturally ebbed due to the time in which it took their letters to reach each other, but the opinion of Taylor remained important to the end.  After Taylor’s disappointment at Gaskell’s biography of her long term friend she was not overly eager to help other biographers, meaning that it was their kinder childhood friend, Ellen Nussey, who had more control over how Charlotte was remembered.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s friendship also had to contend with the challenges of overseas friendship. Indeed, they never met in person, but remained important figures in each other’s lives, offering criticism and advice, and avoiding topics from their personal lives that would have caused contention. They weren’t without their fallings out however, especially in times of deep sadness for Eliot, when Stowe was unable to provide the support she needed.

Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are somewhat unique in this group in that they enjoyed a similar level of success. History has not forgotten their association but rather twisted it into a bitter rivalry, missing the connection they shared. This was exacerbated by their membership of the Bloomsbury and Garsington groups which encouraged snide comment. Midorikawa and Sweeney don’t deny that they were envious of each other’s talent and openly cutting of their work, but also highlight the importance of the helpful criticism they exchanged and the way in which Mansfield encourage Woolf to explore new forms of the novel after the War.

An interesting and unusual book, they shed light on the importance of female literary friendship, shattering the idea of the solitary female author and challenging misconceptions passed down through history. You will notice similarities between the four friendships, the challenges they faced, and ultimately the value they placed on their literary friends. A great insight into the lives of these most famous authors. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

Delirium, Lauren Oliver

Delirium is set in a dystopian world in which love is considered a disease, conversations are monitored, and the only music available is that approved by the authorities. Our narrator, Lena, is a few months off her eighteenth birthday and having the procedure that will ‘cure’ her from ever feeling love. If the reader wasn’t already feeling distinctly uncomfortable with this world it is worsened when she goes for her evaluation where she must stand, essentially naked, in front of a group of assessors, answering questions that will ultimately decide her future – who she will marry and what social class she will be. She knows that her best friend Hana will be given higher status and they will inevitably grow apart  but is reassured that after the cure the memories will fade and she will not miss her. The cure does not only kill romantic love but familial love and passion for hobbies, it turns your life into a dull yet contented existence devoid of any real emotion.

Lena is horrified when she realises Hana is becoming rebellious – listening to illegal music and attending underground raves. Lena has always been so worried of falling into the same traps as her mum, who she is told committed suicide because of love. The flashbacks we witness reveal a happy childhood with a parent who secretly played them music and danced with her children – one perfectly normal to readers but dangerous in their world. Everything changes when Lena predictably falls in love and even braves a trip to the Wilds – the land beyond the border where the uncured and Sympathisers live. She gradually begins to realise the joy of beauty in the world, of feeling deeply, and her eyes are opened to the lies she has been fed for so many years.

We watch as she struggles with these revelations and begins to dread her fast approaching procedure, a day she has long looked forward to. As she falls deeper in love with Alex she becomes desperate to find a way for them to remain together, taking more and more risks, the authorities closing in on them, their world seeming increasingly hostile.

It took me a little while to adjust to the writing style as it’s been some time since my last YA reading, but it is a well-constructed book, the reader finding out more about the world with Lena. Each chapter is headed with propaganda, some even manipulating the Bible to fit the beliefs of the authorities. It is hard to watch as Lena comes to realise how thoroughly she is trapped in this dystopian world. The love story is sweet enough, and believable, and it is moving to read Alex wrestling with the decision to tell Lena information that will shatter the world that she thinks she knows. There is enough in here that you care for the characters and root for their success. I won’t be reading the rest of the series, but that probably says more about my reading habits than the quality of the book.