Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Poe versus Griswold: Fight! Fight! Fight!

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.

I’ve never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (personally I only dig reality tv when it centres around people going on terrible dates or weddings going wrong), but apparently ‘reading someone’ or ‘taking someone to the library’ is drag slang for getting into a verbal war/throwing a barrage of insults somebody’s way – as in you’re reading someone and pointing out all the ways in which they’re shit.

I like it; even though the expression flagrantly disregards the fact that the library is a place for quiet, and the only acceptable type of fight you can have in there is one with a lot of whispering, rude hand gestures and miming ‘fuck you!’.

Anyway, learning this double-meaning got me thinking about literary rivalries and how a war of words is particularly spicy when one or both parties happen to be talented wordsmiths. Because you just know that they’re packing some quality hurtful insults if they’re coming to the table with a proven ability to eloquently string words together.

So let’s talk Poe’s heated exchanges with Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857) – his rival in life and the sneaky snake who managed to worm his way into writing the first biography of Poe following his death in 1849.

The top quote is a slice from Poe’s scathing obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune written under the name “Ludwig”. Republished in many newspapers, it was the start of what are longstanding myths surrounding Poe’s character – namely that he was a bitter erratic genius; talented, but nevertheless a drunk, paranoid, opiate addicted madman with no friends.

“Ludwig” was Rufus Griswold – a fellow editor and critic, who Poe wasn’t shy about slagging off publicly. Whether any of Griswold’s harsh assessment of Poe’s character is fair, remains debateable – and yet their rivalry is pivotal to understanding every biography written on Poe.

First meeting in 1841, when Poe was the editor at Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was working on the first of his anthology series, The Poets and Poetry of America; initially their relationship was amicable, with both praising the other in reviews.

Things soured in 1842, when Poe left Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was hired and paid more to be his successor. Around about the same time, Griswold paid Poe to write a review on The Poets and Poetry of America (in which three of Poe’s poems were included) and while this review didn’t go full bus stop it wasn’t as positive as Griswold expected, with Poe suggesting in a letter to a friend that Griswold’s payment was a bribe and commenting, “that review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will”.

Poe then went on to write two anonymous articles in 1893 where he criticized Griswold; stating that Griswold was “wholly unfit either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s”, that he was “one of the most clumsy of literary thieves” and his anthology was “a very muttonish production”. In turn an article defaming Poe’s character was subsequently published, that he understandably suspected Griswold of writing (according to a letter from Poe to Griswold).

From 1843-1845, Poe was on an American poetry lecture tour of the East coast; here he publicly discussed The Poets and Poetry of America and accused Griswold of favouring his friends and New England writers rather than good poetry. My personal favourite catty remark was about one of Griswold’s friends, Charles F. Briggs, saying that he, “. . . has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English”.

In an attempt to patch things up, Poe made an effort in his 1845 lectures to omit anything which had the potential to offend Griswold and for little while there was a truce. On speaking terms long enough for Griswold to help Poe keep his magazine, The Broadway Journal, in print; in 1847 Griswold critiqued Poe’s editorial skills amongst general bitching and it was back on!

Needless to say they both shared a mutual suspicion for the other [one scholar even suggests that a large factor of their longstanding quarrel was fancying the same poet, Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood]. Griswold was likely the last person who Poe would want having any authority over his legacy; and yet, following Poe’s death in 1849 Griswold managed to gain the post-humous rights to publish a collection of Poe’s work through Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was unaware of their history and the fact that those rights actually belonged to Poe’s sister, Rosalie).

Doubling down on the less-than-flattering obituary; in 1850, Griswold began publishing volumes of Poe’s work, which included a much nastier ‘memoir’ of Poe’s life, where he exaggerated details to make Poe sound like ten-times more of a dropkick than was actually the case (going so far as to forge letters to validate his fabrications).

Griswold died in 1857, and published four volumes of Poe’s work. He was in a position where he was profiting off Poe, and thus it became in his interest to perpetuate the myth that Poe was a train wreck. Until 1875, Griswold’s memoir was the only available account of Poe’s life – and while Poe had his defenders, and more well-balanced biographies were later created, Griswold marred the public image of Poe in a way that was irreversible.

I guess my point is, if you do have a Machiavellian-level nemesis who you’ve ‘taken to the library’ on more than one occasion make sure they don’t have the ability to write a bitter memoir about how shit you were. But at the same time, their exaggerations may also spark a greater popular interest in your bird poetry so it’s not all bad.

“Quoth the Raven: what a shine

Don’t fall for their cuteness; children/youths in fiction who are terrifying

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via: giphy

I was never a scout so I didn’t realise until Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties that ‘brownies’ refers to a fairy tale about a tiny race of people who will tidy and make themselves useful while the adults of the house are asleep (I always assumed that the brownie organisation chose that name because it was cute or they wore brown uniforms or they sold brownies at some point in history).

The story is from 1870 by Juliana Horatia Ewing, and frankly even as a child I would’ve thought what a load of bullshit, with the twist being that after a long journey into the forest the girls learn that brownies are simply children who are suck-ups and wake up at dawn to do housework and don’t want any credit. And I say nah, kids aren’t that selfless and if they’re going to the effort of getting up at 4am to contribute you bet your sweet a that they’re not doing it anonymously.

Based on the books I’ve picked for this post; the changeling myth is probably a bit more realistic. According to that age-old legend, a changeling is a demon or fairy replacement who has been left in the place of a normal – usually unbaptized – child. The fairies or demons will give the abducted child to the devil or use it to strengthen fairy population; meanwhile if you have your suspicions, Irish folklore on changelings tells you to watch out for physical give-aways in your child like an adult level beard or long teeth.

So let’s talk about children/youth from literature who scare me and who wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning the house in secret just to be a nice guy – unless it was part of an elaborate, well-constructed scheme to gain trust from the adults and ultimately utilise that trust for evil bidding!

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

I wrote about Midwich Cuckoos in my fictional places blogpost, and while I generally try to avoid writing about the same book twice, a list of evil children from fiction would feel incomplete without a least mentioning this ominous pack of identical blonde youth (it’s probably also an incomplete list without mentioning Lord of the Flies too but I’ve not read that one so that’s a shame).

Midwich is a fictional isolated English village where one evening all the residents inexplicably fall asleep and wake up to find that every woman is pregnant. Similar to changelings, it turns out the entire village has been impregnated by aliens, with the book even being named after a real family of parasitic birds which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, for other the birds to then raise.

And just like changelings, physical and mental differences make these children identifiable – with their golden eyes, blonde hair, shared mind and rapid development. Their evil deeds largely involve mind reading and causing ‘accidents’ to those they suspect mean them harm.

Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, 1967) *spoilers

This is one of those rare books, where the novel is largely identical to the film – which for me made Rosemary’s failed attempt to reach out for help from an outside doctor even more tragic because I knew it was going to play out exactly the same as it did in the 1968 film adaption.

Here, a young married couple – Rosemary and Guy – move into a sought-after New York apartment building called the Bramford. This (fictional) gothic building has a historic reputation for witchcraft, but it’s vast and fancy and Rosemary and Guy are adults so they’re excited and move in anyway.

Now that they’ve got a fancy abode, Rosemary wants to start trying for kids however Guy only changes his mind once the couple become acquainted with their eccentric neighbours. Guy is an aspiring actor, and long story short, the neighbours are Satanists who promise Guy that his acting career will pick up if Rosemary carries the son of Satan.

While the book finishes with Rosemary choosing to raise her son anyway, despite knowing this, we don’t actually know how the baby turns out. His father is Satan though and he has piercing red eyes so surely he’s a bit of a rascal at the very least.

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

Again this is another book I’ve written about in a previous post, but that post was five years ago so fuck it let’s revisit.

In a dystopian future where campy teen gangs rule the street while wearing matching elaborate costumes and talking entirely in futuristic Russian-cockney slang; the main character Alex is fifteen in the first chapter where, as the head of his gang of five – beats up a beggar, steals a car, tortures a writer and gang-rapes their wife, and ultimately unintentionally kills someone all in the span of two nights. The accidental murder is the crime with Alex is sent to prison for.

We need to talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver, 2003)

This is a good book because you’re never entirely certain whether Kevin is inherently evil or if it’s his mother interpreting everything he did as malicious even as an infant.

The narrator is Eva Khatchadourian; a former travel writer who never wanted children but conceded to make her husband, Franklin happy. Kevin is her now fifteen year old son who is in jail following a school massacre he alone perpetrated. Told through letters to her husband, Eva traces their relationship and her feelings towards Kevin throughout his life, and it’s a classic nature versus nurture thing where you’re not sure if Eva’s perspective can be entirely trusted and you’re left wondering whether part of it was that Kevin could sense that his mother never liked him.

Sisters (Daisy Johnson, 2020) *spoilers (kinda)

In comparison to the last three books, the evilness is this one is more of you’re regular high school cruelty. I’m not going to give too much of this one away because it’s quite surrealist and blurry but its about two eerily close sisters, July and September, who are moving to their family’s abandoned beach house with their mother, following a mysterious incident that happened at school.

Told from July’s perspective, it turns out the catalyst for this mysterious incident was September wanting to take revenge on the classmates who had catfished July into thinking a boy she liked was talking to her, then subsequently convinced her to send nudes and sent them around the school because high school is awful sometimes.

In defence of book quitting and not wasting your precious time

via: @bittycar

There’s an old Seinfeld rant where Jerry doesn’t understand people’s obsession with keeping books once you’ve already read them, “like they’re trophies”, because once a book’s read you have no use for it – and while he’s usually the voice of reason in the show, I have to point out why he’s both wrong and right on this.

In a way a good finished book is like a trophy (especially for someone like me who reads regularly but has no sporting prowess whatsoever and thus will not be winning a snooker trophy anytime soon), and if a book was gripping enough to not be abandoned in the first chapter why shouldn’t it earn a proud spot on the shelf?

I’m not saying I’m against doing a book cull, I’m saying if you’re picky about what you choose to read in full, then a book collection is like a beautiful assortment of stories or ideas that you chanced upon and liked.
I used to be one of those people who were adamantly against quitting a book once you’ve started it, no matter how dull or shithouse it was proving to be. But now I’m of the mindset that life’s too short to stick it out with something on the off chance that maybe it’ll pick up in 100 pages. Nah use that time finding a book that you dig immediately and doesn’t remind you of being forced to read something at school. Have standards about which books are lucky enough to be given some of your precious time, then keep them on display like the creative brain trophies they are.

Plus even with a decent book, no matter how good your memory is, inevitably you are going to forget majority of it beyond a loose recollection of the main plot points; so keeping something that you’ve already finished isn’t nonsensical for these reasons:

  • You could re-read it again
  • If you have fond memories of reading it, keeping the book around will help you remember both the book and what you were doing when you were reading it
  • If you’re a nicer person than me, you might want to lend out the books you thought highly of (yeah I rarely lend my books out, I’ve been burnt too many times)
  • You might be into the dog-tagging pages you liked and revisiting particular quotes or passages

Most importantly though, if we’re all doomed to forget the bulk of any book’s details, why finish something that sucks just so you can say you finished it? If it’s for closure, just google the ending and move on with your life!

via: @simpsonslibrary

Book Recommendations from Daria Morgendorffer’s Reading List

Image result for Daria Morgendorffer reading

My two favourite tv bookworms would probably be, Daria Morgendorffer from Daria and Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. Everyone’s favourite, Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, shits me for one reason: I don’t think it’s realistic (regardless of her being gifted) that a teenager whose life is interesting enough that she’s in a quirky jam every week with her mother, has time to read 339 bulky and often dry as fuck classics on top of her schoolwork (give me a break, she’s just holding at least some of them to look like a boffin. I’m calling bullshit! No one under 20 is reading Ulysses unless someone’s holding a gun to their head for several months). 

Daria ran for five seasons, during which 62 books are either read, or referenced, by the brooding misfit – that’s a believable number (and I want only realistic standards for bookish types dammit! unless it’s Lisa Simpson; she’s been eight for 30 years, she can go read Gore Vidal and it not be weird that she’s in primary school).

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

Anyway the reason I’m bringing up every cynical teen’s hero is because I read a surprising bit of trivia recently; only seven of the 62 books Daria reads over the course of the show, are by women. 

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, this was unexpected because Daria is considered a bit of a 1990s feminist icon – and while she’s fictional, the writers/artists of the show would’ve thought carefully about what books to draw her with to best represent her personality and intellect. 

This got me thinking about my own reading habits and how I too could definitely stand to branch out and read more from different perspectives. 

It’s certainly not been an intentional choice, and this isn’t to say I don’t think the books I read aren’t varied: it’s more something I’ve noticed I could improve, especially when it comes to fiction – because in the fiction department I tend to go for old books or books regarded traditionally as classics and with that there’s a risk of complacence as well as not proactively searching for voices that were/are marginalised but are equally as worthy (or I could just read more fiction brought out in this millennia with an author who’s still alive).  

And I know out the four books I’m about to talk about from Daria’s reading list, only one is by a woman but I promise that with future blogposts I am going to make a better effort to read more diversely and have slightly less dead white guys. Anyway here are four of my favourites that the sarcastic legend is spotted reading! [Of the seven books from the list written by women, I’ve only read two and I’ve already written about Frankenstein in a previous blogpost so I didn’t want to double up] 

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

A bell jar traps whatever’s displayed inside – and while transparent, the glass warps the perception of what’s outside the bell jar. This is how The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, describes the growing isolation she feels as her mental health descends – ‘under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’. 

Told from Esther’s perspective, The Bell Jar begins with the aspiring poet (and recent college graduate) completing a summer internship in New York City for Ladies’ Day magazine. She applies for a writing program which commences immediately after the internship finishes; but following her rejection, Esther moves back to her mothers for the rest of the summer and attempts to start a novel.

However, feeling as though she has no life experience to write something meaningful, teaming with the daunting realisation that college is over and none of the limited paths she has to choose from appeal to her, Esther feels the descent of the bell jar hovering above her head and must eventually undergo electric shock therapy and analysis at the mental asylum.

This is one of those books where I feel like you’re not really going to get a lot out of reading it until life’s thrown you around a little, or you’ve at least feared that your life is directionless.

It’s embarrassing but nineteen was too young for me, and my first impression of The Bell Jar was that it was average. I couldn’t understand what had spurred Esther’s breakdown: myself being a little too immature to get that that’s part of the point – as well as failing to read it with the historical context that opportunities for women were a lot more limited then, or truly appreciate that it was written by a poet who did end her own life less than a month after it was published. In other words I’m very glad I revisited it last year.

Nausea (Jean Paul Sartre, 1938)

You know how in Rocket Man, where it’s a Saturday night and they’re at a rowdy venue and you get the sneaky suspicion that a fight is about to break out so Elton can conveniently play ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’ (oh so subtle); Nausea is kind of like that, in that Sartre’s philosophical ideas are what he wanted to primarily discuss and the story fits around those discussions.

For the French existentialist/campus legend (apparently he once turned up naked at a university event, what a mad dog), “existence precedes essence”, in other words life is all about creating meaning through action.

Like The Bell Jar, Nausea’s main fellow is a writer, called Antoine Roquentin, who is having a ponder –not just about the point of his existence, but human existence in general.

Roquentin documents every thought and sensation he has in order to fully comprehend his own existence (sounding like a writer who’s got a wee bit too much time to kill) and comes to the conclusion that there’s no reason for any of us to exist, the past is meaningless and what he’s going to do with his newfound free will is to write a novel.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Image result for The Simpsons Grapes of Wrath

In 1948, Stalin allowed the film adaption of The Grapes of Wrath to be released in the USSR because it depicts destitute Americans and it heavily criticises capitalism. This backfired however as Soviet citizens turned out to be impressed that even the poorest Americans owned cars.

The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath I was also nineteen (the uni library had a stellar American classics section) and I reread it again this year because 2020 hadn’t made me cry enough on its own. 

I love Steinbeck, and I know this book has received contemporary criticism for having historical inaccuracies but it still has merit regardless; you can feel Steinbeck’s raw anger like he’s talking to you and his point has that rare quality of being both of its time and equally politically pertinent now. There’s a reason he received the Nobel Prize of Literature for it and if anyone wants to tell me it wasn’t their cup of tea that’s fine but you have terrible taste and we’re going to have to take this outside!

During the Great Depression over a half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two to three years; The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a fictional Oklahoma family, the Joads, who lose their farm due to draught, recession and the introduction of tractors. Their only option is to make their way to California and try to get work fruit picking. The book follows the Joads’ journey travelling on Route 66 with everything they own in a beat up Hudson, and the disheartening reality that awaits them as migrant workers, when they finally reach California.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut, 1973)

This one’s a lot more fun compared to the other books on this list – it has many delightful illustrations from Vonnegut himself and a fascinating theory about mirrors being ‘leaks’ to different dimensions – good choice Daria.

So this one splits between two strangers, Kilgore Trout – an elusive and essentially unrecognised science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover – a mentally unstable yet respected car dealership owner and local businessman, Dwayne eventually reads a novel by Trout, after a chance meeting at an arts festival, and takes his book literally that he (Dwayne) is the only free-willed being in the universe with dire consequences. As the narrator, Vonnegut also interjects regularly to give his hot take on life.

[Images via Triple M, Bookglow, Scoopnest, and aerogrammestudio]

Judging/Perving on other people’s bookshelves

I finally got round to reading The Scarlet Letter a few weeks back; it sucked, but a big part of the disappointment was the knowledge that my copy has been sitting on my shelf since Easy A conned me into thinking it might be ok ten years ago; for a decade it’s been touching all my books that don’t suck and during that time there’s also a real possibility that at one point somebody’s looked at my bookshelf and thought that I was a fan.

And yes maybe I’m insane/overthinking it but I personally love having a gander at other people’s bookshelves and getting an impression of what they’re into. I love going to a friend’s home for the first time and seeing which titles they loved enough to keep.

I love that feeling of spotting books on somebody else’s shelf that I’ve also read and realising that we both have another little thing in common.

There’s a David Hume theory that the features of an object are all that exist: there is no object only the features which form to create it. And if you think about seeing a collection of somebody’s books, that they’ve read or are maybe yet to read, has an intimacy to it as you’re seeing little pieces of what makes them who they are. Not to mention seeing how they’ve organised their books (if you’re not putting all you’re penguin classics in the same place you are a stone cold maniac!).

Then there’s William Faulkner who once said that, “a book is a souvenir of a journey, a handhold for the mind”, and I like that too because even though a bookshelf can be proudly on display, when you look at your own, you’re the only one who’ll know where you got each book from and where you were in your life when you read certain books.

My Dad has a large accumulation of books (mainly Ian Rankin, war history and Darwin Awards) and I remember being very impressed when I asked how many of his books he’d actually read and he responded all of them. At best I’ve read 75% of the books I own, but I love the idea of one day being able to look at my bookshelf and know that I’ve read everything on it.

Getting round to eventually finishing everything [or in some cases quitting after 20 pages and judging past me’s purchase decision] is the only way of having certainty that my beautiful collection is not unwittingly harbouring a few shitters in there. But I’m determined, and being in isolation has certainly helped the cause.

Fictional places

Last year my birthday happened to be on the first night of White Night. I’m not a huge fan of crowds so I’d never bothered going before, but my tram heading home goes past Carlton Gardens so I figured why not take myself on an impromptu date around the park and go glorified Christmas light spotting?

It was really incredible though, and thinking about it I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago. There was this ominous ‘oommmm’ sound playing like you were entering a pagan forest and a woman on the Exhibition Building that looked like a god you could ask advice to. Basically it all felt very surreal, like the closest thing I could get to living in a magical fictional place like Wonderland, Macondo or whatever reality the Mighty Boosh takes place in.

So lets talk fictional places in literature given that we’re all currently very boring and restricted to fantasy based travels. I’ll be real with you though, in hindsight majority of the fantasy places I chose for this post are more terrifying than magical.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

According to this beloved French children’s classic, one of the perks of space travel is that the lifeforms found on other planets are just solitary humans in charge of their one planet. Each space person has a flaw yet they’ll also be keen for a chat, and ultimately you’ll leave their planet feeling as though you’ve learnt something about what’s really important.

The little prince lives on an asteroid known as “B 612”; its notable features include three small volcanoes, the baobab trees which the little prince needs to weed out every day to ensure they do not overrun the whole asteroids surface, and a talking rose – his one companion who’s a bit high maintenance and pretentious but means well.

Although the little prince does love his pain in the ass rose friend, he chooses to explore the universe to see if there are other friendships he can make. Before landing on earth in the desert he visits six other planets, each with just one adult inhabitant (who each need to check themselves).

There’s the elderly geographer who has never seen any of the things he records, a lamplighter who meticulously extinguishes and relights a lamppost every thirty seconds as the days on his planet only last a minute, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking (so few children’s book nowadays have drunkards in them it’s a shame), or the alien/starman I relate to most in this book – the narcissist who is very proud of being the most admirable/datable person on his one-man planet.

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

In the eighties there were these identical adult triplets who were separated at birth that reunited and what they did with that was start a restaurant called Triplets. For some reason it makes me think of Midwich Cuckoos cause all children in that are described as looking eerily alike and them all pooling together for a zany business opportunity would also be a great alternative happy ending.

I so wanted to like this book. In theory the plot sounds well up my alley: everyone in this unnoteworthy (and fictional) isolated English village mysteriously fall unconscious for 24 hours, when everyone wakes up they initially seem unharmed yet after a month they realise every woman is pregnant. There’s a conspiracy, evil mysterious blonde-haired youths who have collective powers, plus there’s a great Simpsons reference to it, what’s not to love?

It isn’t bad but it just would’ve been improved with a lot more focus on the children acting like wrongins’ and a bit less philosophical brooding (the book didn’t even give detail on the village-wide riot the children instigated – I was pretty salty, I wanted details told in real time). Surprisingly though this book gives an interesting perspective on the real stigma a woman would face at that time unexpectedly falling pregnant without a partner, and I like that it wasn’t glossed over as a detail.

The Princess Bride (William Goldman, 1973)

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I read this for the first time a few months back, and I’m so glad I saved this gem for such a dogshit year. It such a magical, light-hearted, wholesome, funny book to get lost in when reality is a touch dull as fuck.

Embarrassingly when I was a kid and saw the 1987 film adaption it wasn’t my cup of tea (I’ve since done a re-watch and clearly younger Ellen’s judgement can’t be trusted).

Goldman presents the book a “good parts version” of a (fictional) book by S. Morgenstern – a fictional author from the fictional country, Florin. His commentary and fictional facts about the history of Florin are scattered throughout the story, and like the film adaption Goldman’s introduction tells of his father reading The Princess Bride to him when he was sick (in reality he wrote it for his daughters).

It’s set in medieval Florin, where the main character Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry the heir to Florin’s throne, Prince Humperdinck, after her one true love – a poor farm boy, is presumed dead.

Now Florin is a pretty wicked and terrifying fictional place; it has a fire swamp, cliffs of insanity, shark invested water and an underground “Zoo of Death” where Humperdick collects deadly (fictional) animals to hunt. I’d be open to visiting there, even though it’s national mortality rate is likely really high.

The Shadow over Innsmouth (H.P Lovecraft, 1931)

While the decrepit fictional seaport town of Innsmouth isn’t Lovecraft’s most famous fictional city, it is a bus ride away from the one that appears the most in his stories, Arkham. Plus I opted for Innsmouth over Arkham cause its more menacing and dangerous.

Like Arkham, Innsmouth is found in Massachusetts (it is also loosely based on the real city of Newburyport, Massachusetts), and the main character who takes the ill-advised day trip there is a student of Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

The town reeks of fish, and during the day it appears virtually abandoned with its few inhabitants all sharing odd similarities in appearance with ‘queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes’.

Cut a long story short, for decades the villagers have been breeding with aquatic monsters known as the ‘Deep Ones’ with their offspring’s being part human/part amphibian hybrids. Once these offspring’s reach maturity they transform into Deep Ones and leave Innsmouth to live in an ancient undersea city. As with many Lovecraft stories the moral seems to be never go anywhere new.

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Behemoth is the original Salem

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Via @shy.witch.yk

According to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, [which I haven’t read – so maybe this isn’t a fact at all. Maybe someone’s just told me this to make me look like a dickhead – like in Seinfeld when Elaine thought the original title for War and Peace was War? What is it Good For?] Hemingway would regularly let his cat, F. Puss, babysit his firstborn infant son. As in, he’d leave the baby alone in his French apartment with F. Puss in the playpen as company. His faith in the cat to be a reliable guardian was touching. But the kid lived, so maybe Hemingway should’ve written a parenting book all along!

Anyway hearing this little fun fact got me thinking about Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the 1990s, cleary-a-puppet, cheeky little trash-talking Salem; not the crappy reboot one that doesn’t talk and is definitely a real cat). Because if I had to choose a trustful cat to keep an eye on a human baby for a few hours, I’d pick Salem – even though he would likely make a few cutting quips refusing to do it.

For those who’ve forgotten, Salem (aka the reason every girl round about my age, wanted a black cat growing up) was a 500 year old warlock, trapped in the body of a cat for 100 years – as punishment for his failed attempt at world domination.

He was pure evil, but we’re all willing to forgive him (and accept him as a prospective babysitter), because he’s sarcastic and clever. Plus all cats naturally give off a slightly evil and snooty vibe; so an imagined reality where a cat can talk and has a human personality feels more realistic with that cat being a bit of a loveable shithead.

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Via @salemthecatfanpage

Salem’s literature equivalent would be Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a fellow talking black cat, who struts around the Russian streets, as part of the Devil’s posse, wearing an adorable bow-tie and bowler hat.

Written in the 1930s, and published 26 years after Bulgakov’s death, The Master and Margarita (which I’ve talked about previously in The Name Game post) is a dark comedy about the devil (who goes by the name Woland) taking over an apartment in Moscow with his buddies, and wreaking havoc across the atheist city.

Like Salem, mischievous Behemoth is known on occasion to take human form* and to drop witticisms into the conversation, such as, “I’d rather be a tram conductor and there’s no worse job than that” (where he’s clearly still holding a grudge about being kicked off a tram at the book’s beginning).

Behemoth is the size of a pig, and tends to be in the background with a vodka in hand, sunbathing at the windows of the apartment and being told to shut-up by the rest of the gang.

His hobbies include chess and arson, and without giving too much away (because you really should read it, it’s pretty wicked), my personal favourite Behemoth moment is that he can make a showdown between himself and a group of armed Moscow police, look effortless – and even make the time to be a wise-ass and pretend they’ve successfully shot him.

While Salem may not share Behemoth’s impressive size, they definitely have enough in common that if their paths did ever cross they would make tight drinking buddies. And on reflection, I’d only trust Salem to babysit if he swore not to invite Behemoth over (cause that little shit would raid your liquor cabinet no question).

[*and like Salem, the reader later learns Behemoth was a human whose cat form is a punishment.]

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself.