Tag Archives: novels

Bookworm Woes

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Good morning, and welcome to what I hope will be the most marvellous Thursday of your life so far!

Today I would like to talk about a subject very close to my heart: reading.  Specifically, reading in public.  Here are some of the most irritating and troublesome aspects of being a public bookworm:

  • Who are you looking at?  Sometimes when you’ve been reading for a while, you look up from the page to go over a moment in your head or work something out about the storyline.  If you are sitting in public and you look up to make accidental eye contact with a stranger, they tend to look a bit confused.  Unfortunately, it’s not socially acceptable to say “I’m not looking at you, I’m reading.  Go back to your life.”
  • Unnecessary baggage: If you’re about to leave the house and you’ve only got a few pages left in a book, you have to take a spare one with you, don’t you?  It doesn’t really matter where we’re going:  we must always, always have a good chunk of book available to read.  If this means that we sometimes end up taking large handbags to nightclubs, so be it.
  • Anti-social issues: When meeting friends, we tend to arrive a bit early so that we can get some extra reading in.  Woe betide the friend who turns up in the middle of a chapter, and God help the poor soul who arrives expecting conversation from us when we’ve only got two pages of a thriller novel left.
  • What the heck is going on?  This one is especially true if you’re on public transport: reading can be an all-consuming activity, and if you’re not careful you can miss your bus stop without even noticing.  If you’re sitting on a park bench it can start to get dark or rain without you realising, and in some cases it takes physical prodding from a loved one to bring you back to reality.
  • I’m not crazy; I’m a bookworm.  Sometimes you are reading a book that is so surprising and engaging that you genuinely have to react verbally (potentially by swearing), or so funny that you laugh out loud.  Apparently in public situations this kind of behaviour is a little disconcerting for strangers.  Well, strangers, you’ll just have to deal with it.  I’m reading an awesome story over here.

Well, I’m off to finish The Subtle Knife.  Have a glorious day.

 

The Polymath Problem

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Hello and happy Tuesday, lovely reader!

This morning I met up with an old friend from university.  We don’t get to see each other often enough, so inevitably our coffee mornings consist of work updates, living situation discussions, frank bemusement at the behaviour of men and excessive giggling.

Sometimes (not always), we get around to discussing our mutual passion: the arts.  This friend of mine has a lifelong passion for the arts in all its forms: she is a wonderful baker of lovely cakes, she dances, makes amazing craft stuff and is, of course, a fellow Drama graduate.  She co-runs a charity called Ingeenium which does beautiful and inspiring work with vulnerable people, she is a nanny and she currently works for the government in a top-secret, slightly scary capacity.  Oh, and she’s also studying for her PhD.  Superwoman?  I think so, but I’ve never seen her wear a cape, so it’s hard to tell.  The posh term for this friend of mine is a polymath, which sounds like something out of Red Dwarf, but is actually a real thing.  I like that word, don’t you?

This morning she and I were discussing the problem with being a polymath, although the terms we actually couched it in were more along the lines of “What are we actually DOING with our lives?”  The answer is, currently at least, loads of stuff: we are both trying to pursue careers which support as financially as well as challenge and inspire us, we feel very strongly about a lot of things but are not sure what exactly to do about them, and on top of everything the spectre of George Osborne looms menacingly, reminding us that whatever we choose to do, we will still never be able to afford a mortgage.  Do shut up, George, there’s a dear.

My friend was saying that she wishes she could just have one job and pursue one goal, but I had two concerns about this:

1) Sure, it would be amazing to know from an early age exactly what you want to do with your life, but what happens if that dream fails?  What if your one ambition in life is to become a footballer, and you contract Motor Neurone Disease?  What happens if an aspiring doctor fails their exams?  How does a person recover from the abolition of a life-long dream?

2) Pursuing more than one ambition is not only practical in terms of personal investment; it’s a really, really good idea.  Being good at lots of things is something to be proud of, and caring about lots of things makes you a more rounded human being.  Working in several domains can actually improve your skills in certain areas: having acted (a bit), I consider myself to be a more empathetic director.  Besides, there are many awesome people who can be referred to as polymaths.

Here are a few examples:

1) Mark Watson

An excellent stand-up comedian, Mark Watson has also written some brilliant books.  His writing style is engaging, unbelievably touching in some places and (predictably) very funny.  The stories are completely unique, but the characters are very true to life (terrible phrase, that, but it’s the best I can think of).  His books are novels with little or no relation to his comedy career, so much so that it took me quite a while to twig that the author of some of my favourite books was the same person I’d seen on Mock the Week.

2) Kenneth Branagh

The man can act and direct simultaneously.  I have no idea how he does it (especially given that I can barely walk and talk at the same time), but his adaptations of Shakespearean plays into films are intelligent, moving and spectacularly performed.  Since acting and directing technically fall under the same sector I suppose he’s not technically a polymath, but I think he should get bonus points for being able to realise his artistic vision (ANOTHER terrible phrase – sorry, I’ve no idea what’s happened to my cliché filter today!) within two separate roles.

3) Laura Lexx

Another friend of mine from uni, Laura is excellent at pretty much everything she puts her mind to.  It’s mildly sickening.  A formidable academic success, Laura is also an excellent writer (of blogs, plays and more), an hysterically funny stand-up comedian, a queen bee of baking and “one of those” actors.  By “one of those”, I mean those people that you see on stage and wonder how on earth other performers can bear to compete.  She’s also a very lovely person with an excellent impersonation of a dinosaur in her repertoire.

4) Hannah Barnett

Yet another superwoman that I am lucky enough to be friends with, Hannah is *deep breath* a producer, actress, stage manager, unbelievably talented guitarist and singer with the voice of a particularly well-behaved angel.  Hannah is simultaneously the most organised and most easily distracted person I know.  That takes a lot of skill.  Why do I surround myself with these sickeningly talented people?  Oh, yeah – because they’re awesome.

5) Josh Widdicombe

Putting aside the fact that I love Josh Widdicombe quite a lot anyway, he is a brilliant example of why it’s good to have many talents.  Well-known as a stand-up comedian, he is also a talented DJ who hosts a weekly show on Xfm, which he uses as a platform to promote his friends and colleagues in the comedy world.  I am a massive fan of “paying it forward”, i.e. using your experience and opportunities to help others in similar situations.  (One of my favourite things about my university year group is that even now, we still tell each other when we see jobs or opportunities on IdeasTap that we think others in the group would be interested in.)  Josh Widdicombe is substantially more successful than any of my lot are right now, but he still uses his multiple roles to help out his mates.  I think that’s brilliant.

There are dozens if not hundreds of other examples of polymaths around, including national treasures like Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, and they are all to be congratulated on their ability to pursue many dreams.  It’s wonderful to have a passion in life, but I think that being good at and enjoying several activities is a more realistic and open-minded way to live.

By the way, actors turned models and anyone turned reality television “star” (please read enormous sarcasm into the speech marks around the word star, there), do not count.  Being pretty, greedy for money or desperate for attention cannot in any way be classed as a skill.  That’s just sad, and those people need a hug/slap/stern talking to.

Have a glorious afternoon!

Lessons from Literary Ladies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a chick lit novel must be in want of a life.

That is absolute nonsense, of course, but it does raise an interesting point about why people (not just women) read romantic novels.  It would be easy to dismiss romantic stories as wish fulfilment for lonely readers, and to a certain extent it is.  HOWEVER (and as you can see from the capitals, this is a massive ‘however’), the wish being fulfilled is NOT necessarily what people think it is, i.e., “Oh, I wish I had a Mr. Darcy!”.   More often it’s “I wish I could be as witty as Lizzie Bennett.”

Good romantic novels (as opposed to whiny claptrap) are the ones that show heroes and heroines behaving the way we would like to behave, not just how we want our prospective partners to behave.  People who get swept up in the story of Pride and Prejudice are just as invested in Lizzie Bennett’s decisions as they are in Fitzwilliam Darcy’s smouldering glances.  (I know.  Fitzwilliam.  Try to make your peace with it; it happened.)

Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a closer look at some literary ladies:

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1) Hermione Granger
I have a huge soft spot for this particular heroine, because like me she has uncontrollable hair and she sometimes loses her temper when men are being a bit thick.   J K Rowling has recently said that she regrets pairing Ron and Hermione as a romantic couple in the last Harry Potter book, which to be honest I think is neither here nor there.  (Also, Rowling, move on.  Seriously.  You’ve made your millions and the story is over.  Stop trying to edit it when it’s been published for years.)  Women like Hermione who are clever, sensitive, loyal and a bit prone to climbing on high horses DO fall in love with funny, grumpy, bloke-ish guys like Ron Weasley.  The best thing about reading the Harry Potter books with Hermione in mind is that you realise that it’s not up to you who you fall in love with.  If the cleverest witch in a generation (who for some reason has been able to conjure up portable fire since the age of eleven) can fall for a fairly clueless chap who takes SEVEN YEARS to do something about his feelings, then it doesn’t make you an idiot if it happens to you.

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2) Bella Swan
A lot of people hate the Twilight series, or at least hate that they love them so much.  Why?  Because you cannot get onside with the heroine.  She is SO ANNOYING.  Yeah ok, her two love interests are a freakishly strong teen werewolf and a bloodthirsty statue with a Byron complex, but nothing she says or does in the novels makes you feel like you can relate to her or feel sympathy for her.  The Twilight series is a bad set of books, not because the romance is so drippy, but because the girl at the centre of this incredibly disturbing love triangle is so fundamentally unlovable.

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3) Margaret Hale
Putting aside my absolute fury that North and South is basically a crap version of Pride and Prejudice,  the heroine is the most irritating creature ever to walk the earth (or page, I suppose).  It’s not entirely her fault, though: Gaskell is one of those writers who doesn’t trust her readers to understand anything about her characters purely by describing what they say and do, so she CONSTANTLY reminds the readers in her descriptions how beautiful and wonderful Miss Hale is.  Every other paragraph, Gaskell essentially says “In case you hadn’t noticed, my heroine is really pretty and popular, so you HAVE TO LOVE HER.”  No, Gaskell, I bloody do not.  If your writing were better, you would be able to SHOW your readers what Margaret Hale is like, rather than ramming it down our throats.  Being told a million times how wonderful somebody is without ever seeing any proof just makes you like them less.

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4) Rose Highly-Robinson
The name doesn’t sound too promising, but this girl is one of my favourite literary heroines.  The protagonist of Michelle Magorian’s beautiful A Little Love Song, Rose is a seventeen year-old evacuee who wants to write, but is being pushed into a scientific education by her over-protective mother and her dead father’s wishes.  Michelle Magorian is the woman who wrote Goodnight Mister Tom, and this story is just as heart-warming (and breaking).  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it to you.  Rose is the kind of girl that makes mistakes, but they are exactly the mistakes that you would have made in her position, and you love her for them.  She gets a happy ending, but she gets it by being a real person who puts up a bit of a fight, not by being swept up by a knight in shining armour (although there is a man involved somewhere.  I’ll stop with the spoilers now).

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5) Katniss Everdeen
Jury’s out on this one: I like the concept of Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but her heroine is a bit off, in my opinion.  I understand how she could appeal to people: a physically strong, independent young woman who provides for her family and protects her little sister at all costs.  These are all good things.  But for me personally, the way she behaves with the two men who love her (WHAT is with the spate of love triangles in young adult fiction, by the way?) is pretty off-putting.  I like the books a lot, but I need to pick and choose which bits of Katniss’ character I aspire to.  I would love to be able to shoot a bow and arrow the way she can, but I’d rather not lead a guy on (on TELEVISION, no less) when I know he has feelings for me.  Also, her name is Katniss.  I just…why?  That’s not a name!

There are a lot of other literary heroines who deserved a mention in this blog, but I picked these five because I think they get my point across most clearly.  I could have written the whole thing based on Austen novels, but I think that there is a much wider tendency in all sorts of novels for readers to want to be the hero/heroine rather than ensnare the love interest.  And I think that that’s a good thing.  I might quite like a Dan Stevens-esque Edward Ferrers to rock up at my door, but I’ve just not got the patience of Elinor Dashwood.

Have a cracking Saturday everyone.