Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Engine Summer: A Review in Verse

Engine Summer
by John Crowley

Paperback, 209 pages
First published 1979
ISBN 9780575082816


some books
when you hold them between your hands
they almost have a pulse
each word a heartbeat pumping life between the pages 

They are pieces of a universe that exists somewhere else
you've never seen it
yet you know when you meet it 
you simply know 
and a little bit excitedly 
you know that these books
are made out of stardust of the same star 
scattered between worlds

Discovering them is like a piece of miracle 
cutting time and space in two
whispering a secret

Life, memory
are hardly linear

Some books make you live twice, thrice
countless times
not because you read them again 
but because 
they are so full of life
life is so densely packed in them
life is dripping from the ink into your fingers
so reading them is like a blood transfusion 
is like topping up on oxygen
is like a supernova the size of your palm.

Some books exist in other books
like lives exist in other lives
and stories inside other stories
like embroidery
stitch inside another stitch
and there is affection in this pattern
there is love
and a kind of thirst too
you'll notice it

Some books talk not about the stars and the skies
but talk in the language of the stars and skies themselves
they become an origami firmament
the Milky Way their spinal cord

Some books have been kissed by time
they age so wonderfully
like the year
blessed with the beauty of alternate seasons

Some books
the moment you finish them
they make you have a single wish

Go back to the beginning and start over

This is one of those books.


It seems that I love this book so much that my feelings towards it could have only been expressed in verse (reading DeleuzeGuattari around the time this was written did not help). If my poetic skill has not convinced you, perhaps what's in this story will tempt you enough: 

a low-technology future; a small-scale, rural feeling; a love for life, simple things, and details; a unique and strangely fascinating society; an indescribable affection for stories, books, knowledge, life; a heart-wrenching, bitter-sweet ending you cannot imagine. And large cats. Lots of them. Cats everywhere. I swear this book was written for me. Who knows, maybe it was written for you too.

You can buy it here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Artist's Clinic: 5 books about writing and creativity

Book art by Thomas Allen

Life, who told you to get in the way between me and books? Truth is, I have so many things I must read there is hardly time to read what I want to read. But I am back again, for those who missed me, and I bring with me my adventures in the world of creativity.

Being creative in any possible manner I could fathom has been my oxygen since day one on this earth, but it has in all honesty been my lifeline during these difficult past two years or so. I am surrounded by a number of intelligent, imaginative, creative friends who very rarely manage to finish their artistic work, or to even start sometimes. This makes me sad in a million ways, and I can't say I'm much better at this - I only started moving on and unblocking when I had no other choice but staying sane by doing this. I believe that everyone, EVERYONE and not only the "talented" can and should be making art; Le Guin puts it delightfully in The Dispossessed: “Art? A man makes art because he has to. Why was that made?”. Above all, I consider self-expression a rebellion for marginalised people: the world teach us to write ourselves out; we will learn how to write ourselves in.

"And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it." -  Hélène Cixous

So I've put together a small list of books that have helped me on my journey to self-recovery. I must admit that other books have influenced me as much and perhaps more than the following but only because those were books that had some impact on me, personally (for example, How to Suppress Women's Writing and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath). Yet the following are not without their rewards: they are books I hold dear, books that are there not to do your work for you, but pat you, make you some tea, give you some advice, and always be there for you. Some are like a wise teacher; others like a trusting friend. I tried to collect the very best. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

1) The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron 

No matter what your artistic endeavour, no matter how you feel about this kind of book (if there is another of its kind, I found it a strange mix of self-help and spiritual awareness book) you MUST read this. I mean it. This should be in your bookcase, tomorrow. Pick up this book, do as it says, commit to it. Better, surrender to it. Let go. It is your teacher in creativity yoga, your therapist for broken self-esteem and artistic shame. The exercises are a real fun and not boring at all, as they aim at nurturing the child in you. This is a book that helps you get the job done while pampering yourself. Wait, what are you talking about? Is it really as impossible as it sounds? We grow up to believe it is bad and shameful to be artists and this book works towards undoing this damage - feeling good is what you'll feel (eventually). I always push the exercises a little bit further and think about my life in general, and it has helped me understand what I previously found very hard to deal with  - do this carefully though and at your own risk if you wish so, as you can end up thinking a lot about unpleasant past experiences. If you are attending therapy sessions it might be good to discuss this book with your therapist and introduce it as a guide!

This is a charming, fun book, loosely about writing life and very loosely about writing advice. I think it reads as a well-written, light-hearted memoir for anyone and it probably tells you one thing: It is okay. You are not alone. Life is hard but it can be fun sometimes.  Some tips are killer advice too. This book is the kind of friend you never get to know very intimately but they are always so open about themselves and so delightful to have around that they are held in your heart most dearly. A meeting for coffee with them always makes things better.

3) Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

If you want a manual for writing, THIS is the one - and it hardly reads like a manual. It is uniquely structured around 'shapes' of fiction: all the tiny elements that mesh together into a satisfying story. If you are inclined to literary fiction then this is the book for you; if you want to write character-driven stories, away from cliché patterns, make sure not to miss that. This book is so finely written you can feel the love for books, words, and stories passing from the pages to your fingers like electric current. Literary criticism books hardly show such affection for literature. Writing manuals tell you how to write for publication, not for love. This books tells you that all you need to tell stories is love for people, real people. Understanding people is what fiction is about. The rest will take some practice, but a passion for life is sine qua non. 

If you like to both write and draw (or just draw) and you don't have a journal, then get one. Find a A5 nicely bound one (doesn't have to be Moleskine, I'm broke and I've managed to find neat, cheap ones, which I buy by threes or fours whenever they're half price). This classic book will make you want one - hey, it made me never wanting to leave my journal alone. Your journal is your friend, the extension of yourself. Keeping this kind of journal is not the same as keeping a diary (which I hope you do keep!). Journalling is about noticing the world around you, as it is. It is mindfulness for the artistically inclined. It is being there. Sketch everything, sketch the world, sketch the stuff that exist on your mind, pestering to come out. Then make some notes on them - like field notes, for your life! - write how you feel that moment, write all the thought processes and impressions held. Note that you don't have to be "talented" in sketching, only enjoy sketching. My journals started as nature-loving notebooks, then moved on into becoming visual diaries. I now sketch how I feel, I make collages, I put everything in there. Let them expand and stretch as you move and change, always becoming you (who is always someone else). This book is lovely and slow-paced, and it is a great place to start.

5 Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Last but not least, if you are angry, then start here. This books surrenders to you, much like the cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It is yours to destroy. Don't feel bad about it; be as creative as possible in destroying it and it will be heppy. Keri Smith's books are always delightfully creative, so you might want to check her other unique activity books (also lovely for kids and teenagers!) to see which one suits you best. This one gives you prompts on how to best torture it (and sometimes shock those around you) but do as you wish: break the rules, they are there to be broken after all. I have a friend who's not wrecking the journal I gave her. She doesn't like being told what to do, and she doesn't want to ruin it either. She uses it like a normal journal instead, writing her thoughts in it. This is, to this day, the most unorthodox way I've seen of using the journal. Don't hesitate to do whatever you want with it, it is about you after all.

One last tip: if you happen to have intelligent, imaginative, creative friends (even on-line) whom you trust, try and convince them into playing a game of making up stories every week. We usually give one-word prompts and write something around them, but  go ahead and be as imaginative as possible. The results have been amazing. This has been more useful, heart-warming, bonding, and fun than any book.

Be creative. And stay well.


Friday, 3 May 2013

Masculinity and Englishness in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Review

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 
by Susanna Clarke

Paperback, 1006 pages
First Published 2004 by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 0765356155

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a sensation when it was published back in 2004, both a promotional and a literary one. I believe it remains one of the best things in fantasy and it is still the unparallelled genre innovation of the past two decades. If only Ms Clarke wrote more. *sigh*

This book reads like a pastiche of Austen and Dickens, an amazingly crafted imitation of comedy of manners and 19th century novel, in all its linguistic exquisiteness and innuendo. It features the historical events and certain famous people of the Napoleonian wars: the twist is that they are set in an alternate history in which magic exists - or rather, existed in England but is slowly being revived by the mysterious figures of Mr Norrell and his pupil Jonathan Strange. Their relationship and antagonism become the motor power for a torrent of alternate historical events that begin from an emotionally detached narration to  climax to a deeply moving and memorable finale.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a clever study on the issues of nationalism, colonialism, race, class and masculinity in the historical context of the peak (and end) of the Age of Sail in Britain. Clarke employs an intelligent device called "English Magic" and the book revolves around "the return of English magic" that will save the nation and protect it from its enemies. English magic is somehow a symbol of status that no one remembers why exactly it is considered as such. It is something deeply connected to the land and to the people, but also to class and gender: the title characters are both unmistakably affluent gentlemen. Practising English magic strangely seems like a way of doing the quintessential masculinity of the English gentleman of the time. Be careful though: the sharp tongue and irony of the language hides layers upon layers of meanings. Clarke focuses on this group of people but discusses class in even subtler ways, as the other two magicians of the book, Childermass and Vinculus, come from the other side of the socio-economic spectrum. The author has expressed a wish to write a book on them and alas, I'm still waiting (just between you and me, I can wait a thousand years).

As for what 'English magic' might stand for, I will let you ponder on this yourselves.

Ignore the size of this book and please read it because it's awesome. You can buy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell here.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Picturebooks (for grown-ups) #2: A post-colonial view on "The Giving Tree"

The Giving Tree 
by Shel Silverstein

Hardcover, 64 pages
Published 1964 by HarperCollins
ISBN 0060256656
Image from bilingual English/Japanese edition

'Once there was a tree...and she loved a little boy.'

If you haven't read this book, I don't believe you. It's everywhere. In every bookcase, in every library. You might have read it at school, received it as a gift as an adult, heard it mentioned by a friend at the very least. Perhaps you read it in your sleep! It is the quintessential pair of The Little Prince for all idealistic/romantic readers. It's a story about a tree that keeps giving everything to a boy, until nothing's left. And the boy realises (very late) what a complete scumbag he's been, always asking for more and never caring for the tree that didn't ask anything in return.

If you read this story as "parent love", think again. Because I read it as

"I'm a colonising, exploitative jerk and that tree is my idolising slave. Because I am HUMAN (superior) and it's a TREE (inferior) - read: I am _________ (insert Privileged identity here) and it's _______ (insert Othered identity here). And I can do anything I bloody want with it".

This is a story that lets the coloniser (boy) get away with it by presenting the colonised (tree) as fond of its exploiter. This suspiciously reminds one of slave stereotypes, such as the Mammy:
"From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
This was the mammy caricature, and, like all caricatures, it contained a little truth surrounded by a larger lie. The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She "belonged" to the white family, though it was rarely stated. Unlike Sambo, she was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal."
So does the tree completely belong to the boy and is even happy to be exploited. I could read this story on multiple and intersecting levels, other than parent-child: as woman-man, as people of colour-white people, as earth-humans - and the list goes on. At the very end, I don't even consider it a good story on parents' love: parents should try to teach their kids not to be exploitative dirtbags. That's what I call good parenting! (And just between you and me: I don't think the boy ever realised how bad he was. Just one day, his secure material resource diminished and he was practically pouting over this...almost. If kids grow up treating you like that, they won't respect you when you're dead.)

For a very moving tale on parent love try reading Toshishun instead and let me know what you think.
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