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Archive for the month “February, 2021”

Five things I learnt during my first week of a mindfulness course

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This week I began the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course offered by Monash University on FutureLearn. Here are just a few of the things I learnt during the first week.

  1. Mindfulness is more than meditation. Whilst meditation is an integral part of being mindful as it brings about changes in the brain which improve the regulation of emotions and decrease fear, anxiety and stress [1], mindfulness also encompasses awareness and being present in what you are doing. You can be mindful in everyday activities, such as washing up or having a shower.
  2. I am resistant to meditation, even one as short as five minutes, and I struggle to switch off my brain. I seem to be lost in the ‘cult of busyness’ and feel I simply don’t have time to sit and do nothing. Meditation, however, doesn’t require me to empty my brain of all thoughts but simply to create an awareness of the thought, acknowledge it, let it go and bring my mind back to my breathing. When I do ‘force’ myself to meditate, I find it relatively easy and am surprised at how quickly those five minutes pass. Rather than affecting my productivity in a negative way, I become more productive and better able to focus clearly.
  3. I spend little time in the present moment. When I am doing one thing, I am thinking about what follows and seem to live my life in a constant rush to the next thing. Even when I’m doing something as simple as making a cup of tea, I find I am racing round the kitchen to get it done as quickly as possible. This generates unnecessary stress. When I deliberately slow down, I feel calmer – and the tea gets made just as quickly.
  4. Cultivating attention and focus when you are engaged in mundane tasks enables you to focus better on those activities that require concentration, such as studying. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training; likewise, you can’t engage in mental tasks without preparation.
  5. Listening to the birdsong, feeling the breeze lifting my hair, and enjoying the warmth of the late winter sunshine on my face makes a dog walk even more enjoyable and lifts my mood. Savouring the moment and allowing it to last creates a restful sense of joy and positivity; I feel expansive and free.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/

My reading week: 8/52

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Currently reading: This week I have been ploughing through Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which I need to read for my Reading Lolita in Tehran course in April. At 309 pages, I’m finding it a little on the long side – by about 100 pages. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it; parts are interesting and absorbing, others are struggling to hold my attention. I plan to finish it this weekend so I can move on to something more consistently engaging.

As I’m struggling with Lolita, I have put The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk on hold for the time being. I’ll return to this one at a later date.

I’m still reading Things I Learned on the 6.28: A daily guide to reading by Stig Abell. I’ll start reading the March section, well…in March!

My current nocturnal read, for those nights when I wake and can’t get back to sleep, is Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson, a collection of short stories focusing on the secret lives of the neighbours and friends who live on Water Street.

Finally, as a bit of light relief from Lolita, I’m reading Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, another collection of short stories. I came across this on a How To Read a Novel course I took on FutureLearn recently.

Recently finished: Nothing this week unfortunately.

Reading next: It’s still going to be What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, a novel set in Tehran, which appears to have a dual timeline of 1978 and 2008. I’ve now located the source of the recommendation: https://acrazycrab.wordpress.com/2021/02/11/ten-2020-reads/

Favourite book turned into movie

I’m not a great movie-goer and generally when I enjoy a book and it’s turned into a film I am disappointed. For me the book is always far better and something gets lost in translation from paper to screen.

With that in mind, a novel I read for the first time many years ago and then for the second time last year, which has also been turned into a film (although I haven’t seen it), is The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. First time round, I thought it was all right – not brilliant, not bad. Second time, wow! – I absolutely loved it.

The writing is beautiful with lines such as: So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight. I don’t know why that line stood out – in itself it is relatively simple but, in context, it struck me as perfect. For me, Fitzgerald achieves something that even the best novelists fall short on: the ending. There is none of that sense of rushing to get the manuscript written, which results in a forced and frustrating conclusion. Instead he maintains his strength of writing without compromise but with a moving power that is simultaneously truly sad and breathtakingly beautiful.

Would I watch the movie? I certainly feel a curiosity; however, as I don’t want to spoil the spell created by the novel, for the time being I will give it a miss.

This is day 19 of the 30 day book challenge at http://wantoncreation.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/30-day-book-challenge-2-2-years-on/?relatedposts_exclude=1612 (it’s from a few years ago!). I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

A book that disappointed me

Yesterday I mentioned that when I see lots of people praising a novel, I usually make an effort to read it. Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce was a novel that seemed to be highly acclaimed so I was looking forward to reading it.

All the hype must have raised my expectations and so I was unfortunately disappointed. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it; I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Blood Orange is an undemanding, page-turning, better than average psychological thriller, which at times left me feeling quite frustrated with the actions of the protagonist. I also correctly predicted several aspects of the ending relatively early on. Although this didn’t detract from my enjoyment, it did leave me feeling slightly let down. Perhaps I’m a bit weary of psychological thrillers as I felt similarly about the also highly recommended novel by Alex Michaelides, The Silent Patient.

This was Harriet Tyce‘s debut novel so I’m glad it’s been successful for her. Will I read her second novel, assuming she writes one? Depending on its subject matter, I definitely wouldn’t rule it out.

This is day 18 of the 30 day book challenge at http://wantoncreation.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/30-day-book-challenge-2-2-years-on/?relatedposts_exclude=1612 (it’s from a few years ago!). I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

Top 5 authors I would like to try

This is a difficult one for me as there are a great many authors whose work I would like to explore in more detail. However, for the purposes of this prompt, I have chosen writers whose work I have yet to taste.

Lucy Foley seems to have become extremely popular for her novels The Hunting Party and The Guest List. She has also written: The Book of Lost and Found, The Invitation and Last Letter from Istanbul. When I see a number of people praising a writer, I become curious and make an effort to read their work.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian American author, whose novel, Mornings in Jenin, has been highly recommended to me by several people. Her other novels include: The Blue Between Sky and Water and Against the Loveless World.

Helon Habila is a Nigerian novelist and poet, extracts from whose novel Travellers I have just come across. Other novels are: Waiting for an Angel, Measuring Time and Oil on Water.

Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian Australian writer, whose novel The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. It appears to be her only novel.

Mieko Kawakami is from Japan and has written several novels, the following of which I believe have been translated into English: Miss Ice Sandwich, Breast and Eggs, Heaven, and All the Lovers in the Night. There’s something about Japanese literature that I find particularly appealing so I’m always on the lookout for new writers to try.

The only novel currently in my possession is The Hunting Party and I will have to wait for my current TBR pile to reduce slightly before I order any more.

A favourite quotation from a favourite book

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One of my favourite authors is Paul Auster and I particularly like his novel, Oracle Night, which encompasses my favourite themes of fiction versus reality, the writing process, and time. Inexplicably, I do not have a copy of this novel; however, I do remember part of a quotation that stood out for me:

…written words could alter reality and sometimes we know things before they happen. We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment.

The claim that ‘words could alter reality’ is, I feel, very true. Imagine you are faced with an obstacle to what you are trying to achieve. You could declare it a ‘terrible problem’ and allow it to defeat you or you could frame it as an ‘exciting opportunity’ and rise to the challenge. The choice of words, and thus the stance taken, is likely to affect the outcome. Therefore, our actions in the present can impact on the future, so both the present and the future are within us simultaneously.

Words have a tremendous power, perhaps more than we imagine.

This is day 17 of the 30 day book challenge at http://wantoncreation.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/30-day-book-challenge-2-2-years-on/?relatedposts_exclude=1612 (it’s from a few years ago!). I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

A book I would recommend to an ignorant/close-minded/racist person

In the UK you unfortunately sometimes hear people saying that immigrants should ‘go back to their own country’. There is often the opinion that people choose to come to the UK for free accommodation and government handouts; it is a view frequently parroted without any real thought. However, it is important to consider the circumstances that would make someone leave their homeland, the place of their birth, their family, and uproot to another country. I don’t believe it is a decision taken lightly but one made out of desperate need.

The novel A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells the personal stories of two Afghani women, thrown together in dire circumstances, who ultimately find strength through their friendship to survive the horrific situation they live in. These personal stories are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing political scene and the rise of an oppressive regime, which makes day-to-day living a terrifying struggle for survival. Who, living in such desperate circumstances, wouldn’t wish to escape to a better existence?

There are many other novels that do an equally good job of showing how traumatic life is when you live in constant terror. Two I’ve read this year are The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri, which tells of a couple’s flight to the UK from a Syria ripped apart by civil war, and Girl by Edna O’Brien, which is a fictional account of a schoolgirl abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Novels of this nature are very effective at increasing awareness of the impossibility of living a life where every moment of your day is shrouded in abject fear. How could you stand before an asylum seeker and tell them to return to a country where their life is at risk?

For several years, I taught English to immigrants and some of the stories my students told were chilling. One woman’s daughter was shot and she had no alternative but to carry her three miles to the nearest medical centre. What choice did she have but to leave her homeland seek a better life?

I understand that everybody has their opinion but often these come from a place of ignorance of the facts. The novels that I’ve highlighted here are important for showing what other people’s lives are like, thereby hopefully generating empathy.

This is day 16 of the 30 day book challenge at http://wantoncreation.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/30-day-book-challenge-2-2-years-on/?relatedposts_exclude=1612 (it’s from a few years ago!). I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

Is it right to fictionalise an atrocity?

When I placed an order for the novel Girl by Edna O’Brien, I felt slightly uneasy given its subject matter, a fictional account of a girl who survives the Boko Haram kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls. Should I truly be ‘enjoying’ something of this nature? There is of course the question of whether Edna O’Brien, at over 80 years of age and from a completely different culture, is the appropriate person to write in the voice of a Nigerian schoolgirl: ‘It is a risk, clearly, to write the stories of a nation and a people far from your own, particularly when the contours follow those of a real-life abduction.’ [1] Was it her story to tell? And should I be reading it for ‘pleasure’?

With this in mind, I approached the novel with a great deal of discomfort and caution. From the outset, it is compelling, it’s opening line chilling:

I was a girl once, but not any more.

The horrors and abuse inflicted on these young girls is harrowing to read, particularly as it is based on real life accounts and is therefore sadly and shockingly true: abduction, rape, mutilation, stoning, forced marriages, conversion to Islam, slavery. O’Brien conducted extensive research, travelling to Nigeria, as she explains in her acknowledgements, where she met trauma specialists, voluntary workers, journalists, sisters at a convents, amongst others…and the girls themselves.

Having read the novel, I feel she has effectively raised awareness of the terrors these schoolgirls suffered at the hands of callous perpetrators. So often we are shocked by headlines, we have that momentary reaction of disbelief and anguish at what the abducted and their families are suffering, but then the news moves on and they are forgotten. We continue with our lives, our problems, our own survival, forgetting that our worries are often trivial compared to others’ suffering. And, yes, it can’t be any other way: everybody suffers in their own personal way and their pain is real to them, regardless of where it might be ranked on a scale. A novel that brings the plight of these innocent children to our attention, causing us to think more about the true nature of these atrocities and the fact that they are still going on today, can only be positive, especially when it is done in such an honest and sympathetic manner.

Another justification for a novelist selecting difficult subject matter is that it can prompt us to research, as I did, discovering an article in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine [2]. Written six years after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, it shows some of the survivors smiling for the cameras, wearing brightly coloured dresses, and posing in front of flowers. They have been given an education, as Patience states, a “…best opportunity to make something good.” Yet 112 of the 276 girls abducted on that day are still missing and, with Boko Haram opposing Western education, ‘500 schools have been destroyed, 800 are closed, and more than 2,000 teachers have been killed’[2]. Protests continue but are less well-attended as ‘only a handful of protesters are left’[2]. Time moves on, and for the majority the memory fades; yet for others who remain uncertain as to the fate of their daughters, siblings, granddaughters, cousins, nieces, friends, the nightmare is a constant presence haunting every moment of their existence, tormenting them with despair.

Whilst these young woman have escaped, been provided with an education, and can anticipate a future far removed from those dark, fearful days in tortuous captivity, the trauma and scars remain. As Patience recognises, “I’ll never forget…but I’ve started to pretend like I forget. I have to move on with my life.”[2] Behind every photographed smiling face lies a horror we cannot begin to imagine.

And this is why a novel such as Girl is important.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/06/girl-edna-obrien-review

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2020/03/six-years-ago-boko-haram-kidnapped-276-schoolgirls-where-are-they-now/

My reading week: 7/52

Currently reading: I’ve got a few on the go at the moment.

For my upcoming course, I’m reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The blurb describes it as ‘an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust’. I wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for the course so I’m planning on a close reading of 25 pages a day to get me through. However, I didn’t think I’d enjoy Invitation to a Beheading, also by Nabokov, but I loved it, so I may be pleasantly surprised with this one too.

I’ve also just read the first chapter of The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. Having enjoyed My Name is Red last year, I thought I’d explore another of his novels, and a shorter one at that.

I’m continuing with Things I Learned on the 6.28: A daily guide to reading by Stig Abell. Each month on his daily commute, he worked his way through a different genre or time period. So far I’ve read January (crime) and February (English classics). This kind of project appeals to me although I wouldn’t necessarily do it in quite this way.

In the middle of a sleepless night, I read something on my Kindle app (I much prefer ‘real’ books but can’t turn the light on and disturb my partner). My current nocturnal offering is Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson, a collection of short stories focusing on the secret lives of the neighbours and friends who live on Water Street.

Recently finished: The first novel I finished this week was Girl by Edna O’Brien, which was one of the texts discussed on a How to Read a Novel course that I’ve just completed on Futurelearn. It is a fictional story of a girl who survives the Boko Haram kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls. It is an uncomfortable and harrowing read to say the least, and O’Brien has been criticised for her subject matter, and yet I feel that anything that raises awareness of the plight of these children, and the abject horror they were subjected to, can only be a good thing. I found it incredibly thought-provoking and ‘enjoyed’ it – if you can use that word for a novel of this nature.

I also read Trust Exercise by Susan Choi for the ‘Winner of the National Book Award – any year’ category in The 52 Book Club 2021 Challenge. Quite a few reviews on Goodreads weren’t very positive but it won an award so I decided there must be something worthwhile about it. With this in mind, I approached it with the aim of liking it. And initially I did – but after a short while, I had an uneasy feeling: it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, I didn’t like or care about the characters, I couldn’t work out what it was about. ‘You’ll get there when you get there […]Don’t try to climb a ladder in midair’, says one character early on. It seemed like advice for reading the novel so I ploughed on, exercising my trust. And a bit later, ‘if she knows what the words mean, the book’s meaning ought to unfold’ – well, I knew what the words meant so I continued, trusting that the meaning would unfold. At rare moments, I found myself beginning to get involved and almost interested in the story, then that feeling faded, then returned briefly, then faded again…but still I ploughed on, waiting for a revelation that would cause me to say ‘wow, great, I get it’. Unfortunately, it never came. Fortunately, the end of the novel did.

My find novel was a reread of The Outsider by Albert Camus. This is one of my five star novels from the past so I was apprehensive that the intervening years would have lessened its pleasure. I was slightly thrown by the fact that the edition I ordered was a new translation and therefore there were differences from my ‘original’ – I had remembered so many lines that when they didn’t appear in that form, it was a bit disappointing, unsettling even, and brought me a startling awareness of the important role a translator plays and how language is never straightforward. Despite this, I enjoyed the novel as much as I ever did. I love its simple style and its exploration of how our actions have meaning imposed upon them by others and we are judged by not conducting ourselves in the expected way.

Reading next: Winging its way to me as I type is What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, a novel set in Tehran, which appears to have a dual timeline of 1978 and 2008. I saw it recommended but exactly where escapes me.

My quotation this week is from the February section of Things I Learned on the 6.28:

I burrow into a book, as ever, to escape reality.

What should be on the high school required reading list?

I’m not going to choose one particular book for this, but in view of the somewhat depressing fact that most children I come across in my job as an English tutor cite English (encompassing English Literature) as their worst subject, saying they ‘hate reading’, I feel they need more accessible texts relevant to their lives.

Whilst one UK exam board includes Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman on its reading list, I have yet to meet a child who has studied this novel for their exam. The most modern text I have come across is probably Blood Brothers by Willy Russell, but if we want to get children reading and enjoying novels, with a view to fostering a love of the English language and a desire to read, then we have to make it exciting for them and give them texts they can relate to.

To overcome the daunting task of ploughing through 300+ pages of Jane Eyre, introduce them to short stories from the 19th century onwards. This way they get to experience the different styles of writing and attitudes in a condensed format. Think of all the brilliant short story writers: off the top of my head, without giving it much thought, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Alice Monroe, Zadie Smith, Angela Carter…I could go on. Many of the great novelists have explored the short story form; there is no shortage of choice to engage young, uninterested readers.

The short story is only an easier task by virtue of its length. It is a challenging form to write. A novel can diverge, ramble, indulge in lengthy, descriptions. A short story is constricted, its structure must be tightly controlled, its words carefully selected, its tension built. Only in terms of its length is it less than a novel. It requires the same level of consideration and analysis, but for reluctant readers who would rather be playing computer games or chatting on social media, it is a less onerous and therefore hopefully more enjoyable and achievable task.

When I take on a new GCSE student, the text I begin with is Angela Carter’s The Werewolf. Teenagers enjoy it, recognising its reference to Little Red Riding Hood, a story they are familiar with. This short, short story allows us to explore the kinds of responses they will be asked to provide in their final exam: short extraction questions, language and structure analysis, and a more in depth study (here I use presentation of character). All of my tutees responded positively to it; their confidence is boosted as they can understand it and they are keen to explore and write about it.

English classes in schools should be developing an enthusiasm for the subject, a joy in the written word, a pleasure in living briefly in another person’s life, not turning children away from the language they so vitally need to express themselves throughout their life. The short story might just be the key to kindling a spark of passion.

This is day 15 of the 30 day book challenge at http://wantoncreation.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/30-day-book-challenge-2-2-years-on/?relatedposts_exclude=1612 (it’s from a few years ago!). I aim to respond to each prompt over the course of the next couple of months.

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