I’m moving…

The sweetbowl of life!A quick post to say that I won’t be maintaining this blog for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to combine all my interests under one particularly brightly patterned umbrella, and you can now find me at my new home on the web, Curious Pathways.

I will still talk about books, but I’ll be mixing it up with other curious and creative pursuits. The general aim is to reawaken the sheer joy of exploring, and open up minds and hearts to new pathways and fresh ideas.

I’d love you to drop by and pay me a visit in my new virtual home – maybe you’d even like to ‘follow’ me there…

If we part ways, I wish you all the best in your travels on the web, and hope that you remain curious throughout your life.

Onwards and upwards!

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Wordles, Wordles, Wordles

With apologies to Hamlet, today I’ve been playing with Wordle.

Wordle is ‘a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide.’ You can either paste in a bunch of text from a book/web page of your choice, or enter the URL of a blog/feed (or web page with an Atom/RSS feed). It will then produce a pretty piece of word art, where the size of each word is dependent on how frequently it appears in the original text.

You can tweak fonts, colours, layout etc to your heart’s content, to create something that suits your aesthetic tastes. So, when perusing what to write about in my latest post, rather than hammering out some more ‘words, words, words’ I thought I’d get artistic this time.

Below is a Wordle of – what else? – this very blog. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Wordle of Back to Life...

I should note that this is not a complete record of every word ever written on this blog. You can select a maximum number of words to display, and you can remove numbers and common words entirely. If you’re feeling particularly inventive (or choosy), you can also remove individual words as you wish. So, as I was going about this for creative purposes rather than seeking an accurate analysis of everything I’ve written, I applied a number of these limits.

I noticed that Wordle had included a fair few ‘parts’ of words that originally contained apostrophes, e.g. ‘doesn’ rather than ‘doesn’t’, so I got rid of those. I also removed words that were a bit pedestrian such as ‘put’ and ‘got’. And, although I’d ticked the option to remove numbers, it still included number ‘words’ such as ‘one’ and ‘two’, so I deleted those too.

The most major change I made was to remove the biggest word of all: ‘book’. This was for two reasons:

  1. Both ‘book’ singular and ‘books’ plural appeared in the image, which seemed unnecessary (the creator of Wordle has added a helpful FAQ explaining why he doesn’t do ‘stemming’).
  2. As ‘book’ was substantially larger than everything else, it seemed to dominate just a little too much. So I thought I’d mix things up a bit and get rid of it altogether.

So, the result you see here is probably what I think are the most interesting bits of this blog so far. I’m now wondering what else I can try it out on – other blogs, texts… really, the possibilities are endless. I guess the biggest hassle will be removing any functional words that don’t form part of the actual ‘content’, if I’m copying and pasting. But maybe that’s part of the fun!

In addition to the artistic pleasures described here, Wordle can also be used in scholarly settings, by students who might wish to analyse the frequency of certain words in a particular author’s use of language. But for anyone looking to while away an hour or so doing something vaguely cerebral, yet visual at the same time, Wordle provides an excellent free pursuit for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Why not give it a try?

NB: there are no restrictions on how you use the images you create with Wordle, but you can’t use/embed the applet (i.e. the technology) in your own web pages. See the FAQ for more information.

Make me care about you

book on the grassToday I want to vent a little about something that shouldn’t bug me, but does. (But keep reading – it ends better than it starts, I promise…)

That ‘something’ is authors who tweet. Specifically, authors who tweet about nothing but their latest book. ‘Now available to pre-order on Amazon!’ are words guaranteed to fill me with the overwhelming desire to bang my head against a particularly resilient brick wall. Repeatedly.

Why exactly would I want to buy your book?

Because you want me to? That’s hardly a reason. I don’t owe you anything. What have you ever done for me? Why should I do you a favour?

(Yeah, if I’ve enjoyed previous works of yours before, that’s a reason to at least consider your new offering. But, if this is the case, you only need to tell me about it once. Then I know it’s out there and can put it on my list, and I will buy it. Honest.)

Or maybe you think I’ll be swayed because lots of other people are buying it? Again, nope. We are not all sheep. Many of us do not go out and purchase things purely on the basis that other people are buying them so they must be good.

I buy things because I want to. Because they interest me. Because they speak to me for some personal reason. And no, you don’t get to decide what that personal reason is – it’s personal. To me.

If all I know about you is that you’re on Twitter telling me about a new book, then all I know about you is that you’re someone with a book to sell. That in itself does not engage me. Sorry.

If your book doesn’t speak to me first time round, repeatedly telling me about it isn’t going to change that. Telling me about everyone else who’s buying it isn’t going to change that. Linking to websites trying to persuade me that this is the book of the century isn’t going to change that.

The only thing that will persuade me to buy your book if you are someone I’ve never heard of before (other than a subject matter that truly speaks to me) is if I feel I can engage with you as a person. If you want me to buy your book to help you out, make me care about you. Tell me about your life, your hopes, your dreams, your ideals, the things you love and can’t get enough of. What matters to you, makes you get out of bed in the morning, causes you to weep, encourages you to smile. Post cute cat pictures, goddamnit, and you’re definitely on to a winner.

But please, please, please, don’t just tweet about your book being available to pre-order. Because all that tells me is you’re someone with a sale to make. And, while I appreciate the need to make a living (I’m a freelancer myself – I really do get this), if there’s one thing in this life that depresses the hell out of me, it’s someone who has created a work of art with, seemingly, no joy, no love, no emotional investment in the process, but simply out of the desire to earn a few quid.

Let me be clear: I am absolutely certain that you have invested an enormous amount of joy, love and emotion in your book.

I just want you to tell me about it.

So many books, so little time

booksOh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The MOOC has faded into the deep blue yonder (or into the blue remembered hills, I’m not quite sure which). I stalled at Frankenstein and never got my momentum back – I blame Victor.

Ths is not to say I have no intention of ever reading the books on the course list: I do. I really do. But they’ve slipped a little way down my list of priorities. There are several other rather feisty little chaps that have fought their way out of L-space to clamour for my attention – and I’m kind of inclined to give it to them.

But before you write me off as another intellectual-eyes-bigger-than-her-real-life-belly type, may I plead in my defence? The MOOC books (and, just to indulge me, I would love it if you could pronounce those two words to rhyme) are still tempting. But, since I gave up on the written part of the course, they have no urgency for me at present. Let’s face it, most of them have been around for years/decades, if not centuries, and they’re not likely to be going anywhere soon. So I think I can safely, gently, put them to one side. I’ll whisper to them, ‘Yes, my darlings, sleep awhile and dream of pleasant things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings…’

And thus runs the lullaby of the neglected bookcase.

Ahem. Where was I?

Oh yes! The new books: the ones that are piling up on my shelf and my Kindle in equal measure. Who are these fiendish creatures who so brutally rip my loving hands away from the classics of yore?

Who indeed?

There’s Bartimaeus. Or, to be more precise, the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. I’ve just finished the second book (The Golem’s Eye) and am looking forward to the third (Ptolemy’s Gate). I’ll review the whole lot when I come to the end, but I won’t be starting on this just yet, because of…

Book group. I’ve missed the last two meetings (and the last two books), but I’m hoping to get back into gear this month, as we are reading not one but two books (eek), both of which I’m not just vaguely interested in but desperately keen to read: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory and Casino Royale by Ian Fleming. I’m a bit of a sucker for historical documentaries, although I have a vastly lower tolerance level for historical (hysterical?) romances, so I’ll be interested to see whether The White Queen toots my whistle. Or plucks my harpsichord. Or thrums whatever other instruments they played at the time.

Aiming for my virginals (ooh, behave!) is Casino Royale. Or, more specifically, James Bond. Or, more specifically still, Daniel Craig. Yes, I know this is the book and not the film. But I loved the Bond books when I was a teenager, even before I knew Daniel Craig existed, so the combination of good storytelling and the mental image of the Blond Bond can only be a good thing. I’m working up a bit of a sweat just thinking about this one, so I’ll just promise to review it in a perfectly unbiased light in due course, and move swiftly on to…

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I was intending to read this for Calon Talks Books yesterday, but I haven’t even started it yet, which made finishing it a bit of a challenge. But I’ve committed to it now, so it must stay. Somewhat shamefully, I’ve never read any Neil Gaiman books before, but the ones I’ve heard of are busily slithering their way out of L-space towards my ever-growing list, so in order to fend off their attack I need to make a start on at least one of them. And American Gods comes highly recommended by my hairdresser. *This is why, having spent years as a hairdresser tart, flitting from one to the next, I know I have now found the hairdresser I want to settle down with*

Er. Moving on…

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, is technically next on the list, but I’ve not been able to resist starting it already. I’m an introvert, so this book represents some ‘me time’ where I can reassure myself that it’s totally OK to be the way I am. I’ve had a bit of a hectic summer with birthdays, barbecues and sooper-dooper extraverted holidays, so I’m really looking forward to hunkering down with a good book, as the nights draw in, and regaining my sense of self. I may not blog about this book; I may just absorb it and draw on its strength-giving properties to fuel me through the winter months. Or I may feel inspired to tell all! You’ll have to wait and see.

And finally, there are two other books on my immediate list, which, along with Quiet, I got for my birthday: Under the Paw and Talk to the Tail, by Tom Cox. If you are a cat lover and on Twitter, you can do no better than check out Tom’s @MYSADCAT account. This is partly publicity for his new book The Good, the Bad and the Furry, but mostly an excuse to look at pictures of his most beautiful cat The Bear, whose story is also told in these first two books. When it comes to prioritising reading material, I’m afraid The Bear beats The Raven any day. (Sorry, Edgar.)

So there you have it. Rather a lot of reasons for not pursuing my MOOC books. (Oh go on. Please tell me you’re rhyming those two words.) And I’m not entirely sure if I’ll get through them all by Christmas. For someone who’ll read the back of a cornflake packet while on the loo (mixed metaphors – honestly – but you know what I mean), settling down to read a proper book often eludes me. But I am determined to change my ways! For if I don’t, I truly fear the denizens of L-space will rise up and suffocate me in my bath.

And now I must away. The bookshop is calling…

Victor Frankenstein and his #19thcenturyproblems

FrankensteinIt seems ages ago now that I finally read Frankenstein. I’d lost my last cat to a car, had lapped up Bram Stoker’s Dracula in an attempt to keep my mind occupied (booked a weekend in Whitby on the strength of it!), and was hoping for more of the same from Mary Shelley’s famous work, which I’d long been meaning to read. I was desperate for a good dose of sci-fi to take me out of myself, remove me from the cares of the world (if only temporarily), and give me a different perspective on life.

Well, that didn’t happen.

I can honestly say I’ve never been so disappointed by a book. They say you should never meet your heroes – I wonder how many other people have experienced similar with long-awaited reads? You build up a vision in your mind of how amazing it’s going to be, people have been talking about it for so long, the subject matter really chimes with what you’re interested in, you can’t wait to get going on it, and then… whumph. You get stuck. You struggle with each page. You keep checking how far through you are and how much longer it is to the end. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Exactly.

Now this is not to say that Frankenstein is not a masterpiece. Far from it. It’s clearly a hugely influential work, full of impact for its time, and written by a woman, no less. On a logical plane it still fascinates me, and I’ve certainly continued to mull over its many insights into the human condition, how far should we ‘meddle’ with nature, what is it that really makes us human etc, ever since. But what turned me off in such a massive way was the character of Victor Frankenstein.

Jeez, that guy is self indulgent!

The book is a series of first-person narratives embedded within each other. On the outside is the narrative of the explorer Robert Walton; within this is the narrative of Victor Frankenstein; and right at the heart of the novel (literally and metaphorically) is the narrative of the monster himself. Each character tells us in their own words how the story is panning out for them. And Victor – oh, Victor, Victor, Victor, you poor dear – really seems to feel hard done by. Woe is me. I am so miserable. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going down the garden to eat worms. That sort of thing.

And what is he miserable about? Having given life to a creature that he – only then – decides he doesn’t want to have anything to do with. Oops, I made a mistake. Eurgh, he’s ugly! Get thee away from me, fiend!! Etc.

There is no sense of responsibility for the living being he has brought into the world. Absolutely none. He swoons, quite frankly, like a girl (no offence to my own gender), and lets his creation wander out into the streets with not even so much as a ‘here’s a few francs to see you on your way’ – and then wonders why the monster is (pardon my language) pissed off with him.

Now I do understand that this behaviour is one of the themes of the novel. Personal responsibility is clearly a vital part of any discussion around scientific discoveries and advances in the practice of medicine. Stem cell research; genetic testing; cloning; and so many more topics – all bring in their wake the tornado of fears as to whether this is an ethical thing to do. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should, people say. Arguments rage over whether the physical benefits to be gained from experimenting with the human body’s potential really outweigh the psychological muddle over what it will do to our minds and sense of humanity – where do we stop? what are the consequences? if we let this happen, what will come next? where will it end? Truly the stuff of sci-fi.

This is why, logically, I love the ideas presented in Frankenstein. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned recently about stories, it’s that it’s not enough to expound interesting ideas – you also have to make people care about the characters. And while it is clear that the monster is truly to be pitied, his plight merely highlights the inadequacy of Victor’s own self-styled torment, making it – for me, at least – unendurable. The monster is the tuna & sweetcorn between Victor’s slices of Mighty White, the delicacy of the filling totally squashed by the unforgiveable wrapping. (I guess that makes Robert Walton the Doctor Who lunchbox…)

Those of you on Twitter may be familiar with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. These generally run along the lines of ‘I have run out of chai latte, my life is ruined!’, ‘Oh no, IKEA no longer stock my favourite dog bowls!’, or ‘Aarghh, I literally cannot choose between ITV2 and ITV3 tonight!’ While the use of the hashtag indicates that the tweeter is aware of how terribly self-indulgent their complaint sounds, it generally still makes me feel like slapping them round the face. And Victor – poor, sweet, hard-done-by Victor – is a hundred times worse than any of these. And this is why, despite the tantalising glimpses into philosophical discussion that were what enticed me into picking up this book in the first place, I found it so dreadfully difficult to make myself keep turning the pages. I just felt all Victored out.

So I’m sorry, Mary Shelley. You have indeed written a great work of fiction, and I am certainly glad that I have finally made good on my promise of many years to actually read it. But I won’t be going back to it in a hurry. I need a more sympathetic protagonist if I’m going to pay attention to what (s)he says. At least on Twitter the indulgences are only 140 characters long, and you can unfollow any modern-day Victors who might spring up… I say follow the monsters!

What do you think? Are you on Team Victor, grinding your teeth at everything I’ve just said? Let me know below!

MOOC moochings, and Bram Stoker: Dracula

DraculaWell, I am very late with this blog post. Things have fallen a little by the wayside recently, and not just because of the loss of my cat. I’ve actually decided not to proceed with the ‘assignments’ part of my MOOC, and this has meant that I’ve lost that sense of urgency whereby I was planning to post once a week.

I am still keeping up with the reading, however, and will be watching the video lectures when they are released – but I will probably be slightly behind the actual progress of the course. I hope people will still find this interesting! I’m hoping that if I can give myself more time to consider what I’ve read, and am not restricted by the 320-word limit to the course ‘essays’, then I can write a bit more at length about what I’ve read. It may just take longer than 10 weeks…

I’m going to stick up my Dracula assignment now, which was the last one I submitted. Again, I left it to the last minute, and it was only when I got to the end of the piece that I worked out what my real point was – but by this time it was too late to refine it further, so it had to go in as it was. I started out by focusing on what I felt was a distinct theme of miscommunication throughout the novel, but ended up trying to assimilate this into the theme of ‘old vs new thinking’, i.e. religion / science. I kind of know what I was beginning to get at, but ran out of time to structure the essay in a way that made this argument coherent!

So I will post this up without further ado – let me know what you think!

One theme that is predominant throughout Dracula is that of miscommunication, misdirection and misunderstanding.

The narrative begins with Jonathan’s journal, which we are told is ‘kept in shorthand’ – not readable by everyone. He is in a land where he cannot understand the language and is dependent on signs and symbols to understand his fellow travellers’ concerns. Nor are we ever quite clear exactly how he escapes from Castle Dracula: that part of the story is a blur.

When Lucy is ‘ill’, it is decided to keep her predicament from her mother, and, equally, it is decided to keep the mother’s illness from the daughter. Both women come to an untimely end. Van Helsing refuses to tell anyone the full extent of his fears until circumstances make it impossible to hide any further; it is only when the truth is acknowledged that they are able to defeat the vampire Lucy.

The scenes between Seward and Renfield illustrate just how much can be misinterpreted (or missed entirely) when one party is not in possession of all the facts and must make assumptions. Through the gaps in Seward’s knowledge, Dracula gains access to the building and is able to prey on Mina – who has herself been kept in the dark by her companions. It is only when they begin to work together that they can, again, defeat the enemy.

The novel was written at a time when scientific thought was beginning to counter religious belief and superstition. Despite the use of modern technologies (such as the phonograph) throughout the book, these are still first-person narratives, subject to bias. Dracula can perhaps be seen as a plea to incorporate new thinking with the old – to be rational, but not at the expense of trust, intuition and faith. As Van Helsing says, ‘I have trained myself to keep an open mind’: the basis, equally, of both faith and the scientific method.

I scored 4 for this essay: 2 for both Form and Content. This seems about right, given my own reservations on what I’d written! It looks as though, unless I can bring myself to write essays for the remaining books, I won’t be ‘passing’ the course – but then, a qualification was never the reason I started it in the first place. Getting this far has certainly helped me recognise that a strict academic regime isn’t quite right for me at present – I have felt frustrated rather than energised by having to not just write essays but mark others’ work, and I feel that for me, right now, I just want to get back into enjoying reading rather than having to put something out into the world.

So, I will continue to blog, but in my own time – I hope that you will still enjoy following me on my journey.

Next up: Frankenstein!

Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Drink MeMy second post about the MOOC I’m undertaking is a little later than planned, as I sadly lost my cat Flora over the weekend to a speeding car; hence everything has got delayed while I’ve been dealing with that.

It’s strange sitting here writing without her padding around or simply sitting next to me keeping me company. It’s particularly odd that last week I was focused on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which feature not just one but four feline characters: Dinah and her two kittens Kitty and Snowdrop, plus the Cheshire Cat – and this week I’ve been reading Dracula, with its obvious focus on death. So to find myself digging a kitty grave in between the two has felt a little surreal, to say the least.

However, without more ado (and because I still don’t really have the heart to write much more at the moment), here is my Alice assignment.

In Through the Looking Glass (TTLG) there is a distinct theme of ‘opposites’. Not only does Alice visit ‘Looking-Glass world’, which is the literal mirror image of ours, many of the characters appear in twos; for instance, the black/white kittens; Red/White chess pieces; Tweedledum/Tweedledee; Lion/Unicorn; Haigha/Hatta. As well as the explicit connection with opposing chess sides (red/black and white), the pairs may also represent the theme of ‘identity’ prevalent throughout the book.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited the concept of the ‘mirror stage’ in child development. Infants recognise themselves in a mirror, thereby becoming an object that can be viewed from outside the self; one can only imagine how much impact this must have on their developing sense of identity.

Although this stage is deemed to take place at around six months of age (much younger than Alice), it is interesting that Carroll uses the concept of a looking glass to explore issues of identity. The wood where Alice and the Fawn are briefly ignorant of each other’s true natures; the insistence of the Tweedle brothers that she is merely a figment of the Red King’s dream; Alice’s self-determined progress from pawn to Queen – all these touch on what it means to be a developing, thinking, questioning human being.

Even for adults, the mirror gives each individual their own ‘counterpart’. In TTLG, characters who appear ‘solo’ can still be aligned with others: for instance, Humpty Dumpty with Dinah (in Alice’s view, at least), the Sheep with the White Queen, perhaps even the Fawn with Alice herself.

The fact that Alice is ‘seven and a half exactly’ – the age around which children generally begin to display greater inquisitiveness into the outside world – is surely no coincidence. TTLG illustrates a girl’s coming to terms with the world around her, by reflecting it through the vision of the ‘mirror image’.

I scored a 4 this time (2 for Form and 2 for Content), which is ‘adequate’, so I’m still on track to pass the course! It remains to be seen whether my subsequent essays make the grade…

My most recent assigment was on Dracula; I submitted it yesterday, again at the 11th hour because of my above-mentioned personal circumstances, and I really had to force myself to do it this time. It’s frustrating when I leave things to the last minute, as I find myself pursuing a really interesting line of enquiry but run out of time to dissect it thoroughly, which means I end up submitting something that I know is only half formed. However, a bad mark is no worse than a missed assignment, and I can always come back to it to review things further in my own time, so I think it’s still better to submit something rather than nothing.

So my Dracula essay will follow later this week or early next week, once I’ve had my work back. I’ve had a couple of other thoughts about it too, which I will try to find the time to comment on – but if I don’t, please forgive me, as it will simply mean that I’m still missing my cat too much to write 😦