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 on 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.