Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Sick Rose || William Blake

There are very few poems I can recite by heart, but Blake's The Sick Rose is one that I can. The Songs of Innocence and Experience have always been some of my favourite poems - I think I prefer the Songs of Experience, but don't tell Innocence - and The Sick Rose stands out in its brevity, apparent simplicity, and all round blatant innuendo (the invisible worm?! Come on!).

I've always loved Blake's deceptive simplicity and this poem is a shining example. It can be read and interpreted in so many different ways and many of the key symbols - the rose, the worm - can be understood in various ways, both literally and metaphorically. I have a fondness for poems which will inevitably mean different things to different people and this is certainly one of those.

Reciting poetry in anxiety-inducing situations is one of my coping mechanisms and this one is particularly good for relieving stress and anxiety. In part because it makes my immature self giggle uncontrollably! I had a hip MRI this year and I am supremely claustrophobic, but I repeated The Sick Rose over and over for the time it took and managed to survive. It was only after that I realised the MRI technicians could hear everything going on in the room - oops.

Can you recite any poems from memory?


Friday, 2 December 2016

Fragment || Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke is most well known for his patriotic poems from the First World War, some of which are fantastic. However, my favourite of his works is one that doesn't always show up in various collections: Fragment.

Fragment was written on the journey to Gallipoli, shortly before Brooke's death from septicaemia in April 1915. It marks a change in his war poetry and has a much more sombre tone, yet still maintains his typical lyricism. The final stanza I think is particularly beautiful, but read retrospectively with the knowledge of his death, it is also extremely sad.

The whole poem has an eerie feel, from the 'cloudy moonless sky' to the 'perishing things and strange ghosts' of the final stanza. He alludes to the randomness of war, the brutality and the futility of it: 'thought little of, pashed, scattered...' Perhaps the overriding thing I feel when reading this poem is loneliness and that feeling of being alone in a crowd of people. Brooke is on the outside looking in, having had a realisation that war does not allow idealism, and slowly coming to terms with the knowledge that he, or his fellow soldiers may, or will, die.

A long time ago I read Jill Dawson's brilliant novel The Great Lover which is a fictional exploration of the rumours that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti. I'd barely come across him before this and had misguidedly dismissed him as a somewhat uninteresting war poet, but Dawson's novel opened up a different side of him for me and introduced me to his Grantchester poems. I've had various conversations with writers and readers alike about Brooke and I always find myself defending him. I think it's important to read literature in the context of its own time, not in the context of now, and I often feel that Brooke gets judged harshly on the basis that he was a staunch patriot and perhaps naive and idealistic. I'll always call on this poem as my evidence that things perhaps changed for him on that boat heading for Gallipoli.

What do you think of this poem?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Invictus || William Ernest Henley

I first came across Invictus by William Ernest Henley a short while after my sixth form English Lit teacher helped me fall back in love with poetry by way of William Blake. I'd suddenly included the poetry section in my local Waterstones into my weekly browsing ritual, but didn't know where to begin, so I started with a classic anthology: Poetry Please. It was a neat little hard back book, almost pocket size, with a lavender coloured spine. I read it cover to cover, engaging with some poems more than others, and rereading and rereading.

Invictus gets a bad rap I always think, for such a powerful poem. It is perhaps simplistic or lacking in subtlety, but I'd argue that its blatant in-your-face-ness is another way of imparting the message. He is the master of his fate and he shows you that with the unrelenting force of the poem as well as through the words themselves.

It's a significant poem throughout history and has come to represent Britishness, the 'stiff upper lip' mindset, and Victorian stoicicm. It is widely quoted both in fact and fiction, from Churchill's wartime speeches to Dorothy L Sayers's detective-hero, Peter Wimsey.

For me, the significance is wholly personal. My sister was very ill at the time I first came across the poem, having also been very ill as a child, so it soon morphed into a poem that represents her and her unconquerable strength. Sometimes the simplest of poems can root you to reality and act as a beacon of hope. Invictus did that for me in those uneasy sixth form days and continues to do so now. A couple of years after I first read it I showed it to my sister and tried to describe what it means to me in relation to her. She now has the title tattooed on her foot and the final two lines on her leg.

I think my experiences with this poem, found by chance just when I needed it, is testament to the power of poetry.

Have you ever had a similar experience with a poem?


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Hello + a Project for December

Hello, hi, hey there. It's been a while, huh?

I've been umming and ahhing about coming back to Lit Nerd pretty much since I published my 'see you on the other side' post. I stopped writing here because I no longer enjoyed it and because I am very good at losing myself in comparison games. There's times I miss it and times I don't, but I do miss talking about books and being creative (if that's what this is).

Usually in December I set myself a 25 days of fitness challenge, but my hips are too bad this year to put myself under that pressure. I have a funny old relationship with December and I like having something to spur me on through the month, so I've decided to do a short project on here instead.

Every day from tomorrow until Christmas Day I'm going to share a poem. Some poems will be old favourites or ones that have had a significant impact on my life, others will be new to me that I'll discover throughout the month.

My books are all still in boxes (there's no bookshelf in our new flat), but tonight I'll be rooting around to find all the collections of poetry I keep in London, and tomorrow I'll start.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the poems I share throughout the month and I hope you enjoy reading them.

See you tomorrow.


Wednesday, 10 August 2016

See you on the other side

In case you haven't noticed, I've been taking some time away from Lit Nerd. I don't know when - or, if - I'll be back, but I do hope that one day my enthusiasm for this little corner will return. After all, it's kept me going for nearly four years.

I'm still instagramming and twittering intermittently, if you start to miss me terribly.

See you on the other side


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Q&A with James Wilson

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished The Summer of Broken Stories but, as I said in my review, it's still floating around in my mind. For that reason I was very excited to have the opportunity to grill the author, James Wilson, about the novel and certain elements which stood out for me. 

Q. Both world wars cast a long shadow in this book and it’s clear that many of the characters were involved with and affected by war in one way or another. Was this a conscious decision to draw attention to the effect of war, or was it just an inevitable part of the novel because of the period in which it’s set?

A. That’s an interesting question. The answer is that it wasn’t a conscious decision, but a reflection of what I found on my return visit to my ten-year-old self. I realized that almost every adult I knew then had been directly affected by one or both of the world wars: my father had been evacuated from France (Calais, not Dunkirk) in 1940; my mother’s childhood home had been damaged by a German bomb; my grandmother had lost her fiancĂ© on the Western Front; one of my great uncles had been killed, and his brother, my grandfather, had been gassed, and remained a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. The strange thing is that, while these back-stories were a constant off-stage presence, people very rarely talked about them openly.

Q. Did you face any challenges whilst writing this novel?

A. There are challenges with every novel, starting with trying to find the right narrative voice. With The Summer of Broken Stories, the problem was to come up with an approach that acknowledged the lapse of time between the 1950s and now, but didn’t weigh the story down with hindsight: I wanted the reader, as far as possible, to be able to share Mark’s experiences as they happened. Only after several false starts did I hit upon the structure I eventually used: a short opening section set in the present, which then – by a kind of cinematic fade – moves back into the past.

Q. I loved the focus on stories, storytelling and imagination in the novel. Did you make up imaginary worlds like Peveril on the Swift when you were a child?

A. Absolutely! Like Mark, I had a model railway, and made up stories about the people who lived (in little cardboard and balsa wood houses) in the village next to the station. And like him, too, I spent a lot of time outside with my dog, imagining myself back in some earlier period – the eighteenth century, or Roman Britain, or the Middle Ages.

Q. There’s a lot going on in this novel – it explores a variety of themes, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. Were you driven by any particular theme or message whilst writing?

A. You obviously read it very perceptively! Yes, there is a lot going on, much of it – as you suggest – beneath the surface. I can’t reduce what I was trying to do to a message, exactly, but there are certainly a number of themes. One of the most important is the power of the stories we tell ourselves, and their relationship with our experience of the real world. So, for example, Mark’s imagined community, Peveril on the Swift, is a kind idealized version of the village he actually lives in – the village as it would like to be, or he would like it to be – where he can take refuge from the tensions of his family life. 

Q. Was there anything in particular which triggered the idea for this novel?

A. Part of it stemmed from the death of my mother, and the realization of how much had disappeared with her. At a stroke, a lot of my life, the world I grew up in, became, literally, history. And I wanted to recapture something of what it actually felt like – or at least, what it felt like to me, growing up then – before it had vanished altogether. It was nothing at all like the popular view of the 1950s, which sees it as a kind of dull, monochrome prelude to the psychedelic sixties. The two world wars, as you say, still cast long shadows, and there was a good deal of anxiety about the future – a lot of it expressed in TV and radio dramas, and children’s comics, and the novels of authors like John Wyndham. And I was interested in what those stories tell us, not only about the time in which they were written, but also about the world we live in today.

Q. Finally, I’m pretty nosy when it comes to books so I’d love to know what you’re reading now?

A. My reading’s a bit hotch-potchy: a mixture, usually, of research for my latest project (currently, Rob Young’s excellent Electric Eden, about the visionary tradition in English music); classics I should have got round to earlier (most recently, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter); and contemporary fiction (I’ve just started Patrick Flanery’s I Am No One). 

Thank you very much to James Wilson for taking the time to answer my questions so brilliantly! You can find my review of The Summer of Broken Stories here and find the book on Alma's website here.

James Wilson can be found on his website and on twitter.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Summer as Character || Mini Reviews

A few weeks ago I found myself reading two books with the word summer in the title back to back. They couldn't be more different - one is a debut thriller, the other a work of literary fiction from an established author - but I was struck by the role summer played in both. Summer, and heat waves in particular, acts as a crucible or catalyst in many novels (having read it this year, I'm reminded of Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave). These two novels take summer as their setting and weave tales that are inextricably linked to the season; one because of the heat, the other because of the school summer break.    

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

In the blistering heat of Western Texas, Jasper Curtis returns home to live with his sister and her two daughters after ten years in prison. Jasper says he's done with trouble, but the town can't forget what he did.

I thought I'd like this novel when I first read the synopsis, but I'm surprised at quite how absorbed - almost addicted - I was. Donal Ryan's quote there on the front cover sums it's up pretty well, this novel is gripping, dark and compelling. The darkness that presides over it is thick with heat and uncertainty. I found myself losing sight of what's right and what's wrong the further I was led into the story and into Jasper's life.

The heat is an important part of this novel. It's oppressiveness is felt throughout and reading it I could almost feel the sun beating down on me, feel the panic of confinement and the discomfort of the thick air.

This is a novel that tips you upside down and makes you question your long held beliefs. Once it's done that, Ronan hits you with the climactic scene. I was surprised at how it played out, yet I was in awe of Ronan's gentle touch. Her writing is detailed, lyrical and tense. I turned those final pages with my heart in my mouth, but it never felt overdone or sensationalised. Her understanding of humanity and particularly of the need for revenge is truly something.

The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson

This novel is written from the perspective of Mark, a school boy who is busy spending his summer wandering with his dog and making up stories when he comes across a rather unusual man in the woods. This man is Aubrey Hillyard, a writer working on an ominous science fiction novel, who has been shunned by village society for reasons unknown to Mark. They strike up an unusual friendship based on storytelling, whilst the villagers plot to drive Aubrey out.

This book is set in 1950s England, where the shadow of the Second World War still looms. It's quite different from The Last Days of Summer in a number of ways, but it is equally as unsettling and memorable. I was struck particularly by how intricate the book became considering that the plot was relatively simple. What made it intricate was the sheer number of themes and issues it addresses, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. It explores things such as friendship and childhood, betrayal and rebellion, and yet it never feels overdone. Check back tomorrow to hear more about this as I was lucky enough to arrange a Q&A with James Wilson.

Summer here is like a character in a play. It's there to move things along and to instigate various actions, but it has a start and an end point which brackets the novel. There isn't so much a sense of oppressive heat here, rather the tension comes partly from the time constraints as the days before term restarts (and reality hits), slowly fall away. On a slightly more metaphorical level the passing summer also reflects Mark's childhood and the passing off his innocence as he gets more and more embroiled in Aubrey's world.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels and I've found it so interesting to reflect back on them in a slightly different way. The more I think about it, the more I realise how important the season is to a work of fiction. It can completely change the tone and tensions of a novel - I wonder how either of these would play out in the winter. Quite differently, I suppose.

Have you ever been struck by the role the season plays in a novel?

Thank you to the publishers for providing me with these novels for review. All opinions my own as per.

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