The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (2005)

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It’s been a bit crazy at work this week, although, amazingly enough, we are almost halfway through the semester already. This new job keeps me busy, and busy equals happy for me. (Plus, I can’t quite believe that I actually hold this job sometimes as it’s that good!)

Apart from the being occupado at work, I’ve also been reading and writing in my spare time, and it’s finally reaching autumn temperatures around here more days than not, so what’s not to love?

There has been one tragic thing that occurred on campus last week, which was a troubled student shot and killed one of our campus police officers. Life on campus has been a little subdued for the last few days, unsurprisingly, and our thoughts are with the family of the fallen officer. It’s been a sad week.

Not to be insensitive or anything, life has been moving along despite this event, and I’ve finished up a great book called “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly (2005), a novel that follows the life of a political prisoner who is being unjustly held in a horrible cell in Burma/Myanmar (depending on who you ask). It’s from the POV of the prisoner, and it details his day-by-day life in prison in solitary confinement (the cage of the title) and the people with whom he interacts.

It’s a great read, although the subject matter can be hard to take (prison rape, inhumane treatment, etc.). It’s actually written by an American woman who lived for two years on the border of Burma/Myanmar, and it’s quite amazing how she can lead the reader into the head of this political prisoner in a realistic manner. It’s clear that she has done her research with this.

Despite the harsh living conditions and inhumane treatment, the protagonist is a great example of human resilience, and there are some other patches of humanity that are allowed to shine through. Some of the other prisoners are not horrible people, there is a small boy orphan who lives at the prison as he has nowhere else to go, and there are a few others that come and go, but for the most part, it seemed to be a pretty dark place.

However, the prisoner in question (he who lives in the Lizard Cage) finds small things for which to be grateful – the lizards who climb down the walls from the outside skylight, the ant colony who travel through his space, and the one or two people who show him some small kindness in this unpleasant world.

However, Connelly has done a good job with making this a very readable book without glossing over the hardships of the characters. It’s a good balance and kudos should go to her.

I also read another book, but can’t remember what the title of that was to save my life. Unlike my typical slightly obsessive habit, I didn’t seem to write down the relevant details, but hey. Life goes on, my friends.

Then I started a NF read about Victorian times, but it was soooo badly written that I ended up not being to take it any more, so threw that one down. (It was a shame though, as the topic was perfect: the servants of Victoria? Yes please, but it was not to be.)

Now I’m enjoying a read of Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Victorian times? Check. Social history? Check. Uses some epistolary work? Check. Well written? Check, check, check. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to reading some more of this over the weekend.

Hope life is good for you as well.

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Well, hello, my lovelies…

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Hello (or Hullo to English people :-))! It’s me, back from the break.

First, let me apologize for the complete lack of posts. You’re right. I had the two weeks off to play and write and just be, and it was lovely, I must admit. However, such sloth does not encourage turning on the computer that much, so I tried to not be behind a screen quite so much in my free time. In my old position at work, I was in front of a computer screen all day every day, so I really enjoyed taking a break from things electronic (except, you know, TV, iPhone… but we won’t mention those.)

Now, it’s all action stations. I have started my new job with the College of Media and Communications, I’ve had a couple of classes teaching, and I’m getting my groove back in the classroom, and the new folks that I’m working with seem to be very smart, kind, and fun, so it’s all good. It’s definitely going to be a different world from the one that I’ve been in, and I’m very psyched about the change.

So what did I actually do during my two weeks off? Well, I must be honest and admit that there were plenty of naps, quite a bit of reading, and a lot of hanging around with the pets. They’re not used to me being home all day, so I probably ruined their schedules, but we did have fun with each other. Cowboy was particularly happy to be with me, her Spirit Animal. /jk/

I am interested in setting up a new study in our third bedroom, and so I’ve been researching that a bit. Lots of ideas so now I just need to narrow down what I’m looking for. It’s going to be a whole new room, involving getting rid of all the furniture in it currently (as it’s been a spare bedroom), so I trying to make sure that I’m fairly sure in what I want, design-wise.

The room has great light (four floor-to-ceiling windows), and I’m looking for a fairly modern/MCM vibe with the new pieces. Oh, and a drafting board desk thing. I’m wondering where one purchases these, but I do work at a university, so I’m thinking that there must be students who have forked out for a drafting desk, and then changed their majors, so hoping I can get one at a good price.

I’m looking for a surface that will be large enough for any projects that I do, and perhaps a jigsaw puzzle or two. (The current jigsaw set up right now is on the dining room table which (a) is frustrating because you have to live around a puzzle, and (b) I usually feel a bit rushed to complete the puzzle as the table is high-stakes real estate in our home. (Goofy, huh, but I really enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles and have decided that this room is my room, and if I want to do jigsaw puzzles in it, then it’s time to have a place that works with that. Woo. Go me.)

I also think that I will have work (e.g. grading etc.) to do when I am at home sometimes, so I’d like an area where I can leave a project in the place where it is, without having to dismantle everything. I’m pretty excited about it, but not going to rush it.

I decided that when I turned fifty (a few years back) that I was no longer going to make do with “almost right” with regard to what I like to buy. I would always buy whatever I needed (e.g. clothes, furniture etc.) from the sometimes-ratty selection in the Reduced Price area of the store or from thrift, and I do have some good bargains from that shopping technique, but I’d really like this room to be closer to “exactly what I want” this time around. So, I’m taking my time, researching everything, and when I have a stronger idea of what I’m looking for (which I’ll know when I see it), then I’ll bite the bullet and buy it.

So, what about reading, I hear you ask? Yes, I have been doing that, and feel rather behind the curve with blogging my titles etc. I’m contemplating doing a big round-up post, and then moving on from there, as there have been some great titles, so we’ll see..

So, expect a reading post in the next day or two, and then I think I’ll be back to business blog-wise.

So, how’s your world? It’s the end of summer (for some of us), and I, for one, am ridiculously excited about the upcoming cooler months. (Speaking of weather, my thoughts are with those who are in Southern Texas and dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Poor things.)

Chat soon.

 

Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts – Maxine Hong Kingston (1975)

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I picked this book up as part of my ongoing effort to read more diverse books and combining that with the evergreen goal of reading from my TBR. Plus – it also fit in a missing year on my Century of Books project as well. Check, check, and check.

I’d heard of this title, but wasn’t exactly sure what it was about much more than it was a creative autobiography of a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., and this is what the read was, in the end, but it was certainly a lot more than the run-of-the-mill story of someone’s life. A lot of libraries tend to classify this novel as “creative nonfiction.” (My issue with that is what is the final ratio of facts to fiction before it tips over into 100% fiction? Perhaps I’ll never know…)

On the surface, it’s a well-written autobiography of Hong Kingston, and there are strong overlaps between what Western historians would call “personal history” and the culture of being a Chinese person in America. However, this fairly straightforward personal history is filtered through a large lens of Chinese culture, myth, and folklore, and when I was done with the read, I was a bit dizzy with the whole ride. It was good, but it was a bit of a wild journey.

The narrative structure is divided into five pieces. (I’d say “chapters” but I think that these separations are more meaningful than the typical chapter in traditionally structured fiction pieces.) Throughout the reading, Hong Kingston smoothly blends the facts of her childhood, myths and talk-story of old China, and then combines the result with the Chinese diaspora experience in the US.

It’s very dreamy and surreal in many ways, and so the passage of time is flexible which means that you’re just not sure what is true and what is not.

(Side note: Thinking about it, I think that the argument of truth vs. fiction could be held for every autobiography as memory is not always accurate (even when it is).)

I’m actually finding it pretty difficult to review this in any helpful way for you, so I’ll just give you some pointers if you’re thinking about reading it. (It’s a very common text for freshmen lit survey classes in US campuses.)

  • Be prepared to go with the flow as it’s not a linear A-B-C narrative arc.
  • Be prepared for some magical realism type of writing.
  • Be prepared to enjoy a mélange of Chinese myth and family dynamics of a family who are fairly recent immigrants.
  • Familiarize yourself a bit with the Chinese Revolution history as it plays a major role in the background.
  • Be prepared for a litany of character names: Brave Orchid, No Name Woman, Fa Mu Lan, Sitting Ghost, and loads of others.
  • Finally, I would recommend that you read this novel in big chunks of time instead of a pick-up put-down manner.

So a pretty good read, but not as awesome as I thought it was going to be. (This may have been my fault as opposed to the book’s fault though.) Plus – it’s a title off the TBR pile. Hooray for that.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Wanting to read something that I couldn’t put down this Memorial Day weekend, I pulled “Americanah” off the library shelf, Scary Big Book though it is, and settled down on our new comfortable couch. Four and a half hours later, I emerged at the end of the book having been immersed in the world of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they traverse the uneven terrain of love and adulthood.

I was aware that Ngozi Adichie was an excellent writer (see review of We Should All Be Feminists here), but it’s been a while since I’ve managed to select a book that I couldn’t put down, and it’s been even longer since I’ve have had a few hours to devote solidly to an awesome read. Both of those opportunities came when I took the day off from work for the three-day weekend, and I have to say that although I’m only half-way through the year right now, there is no doubt that this title will make the Top Ten List at the end of the year.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to have noticed this book. It’s been awarded honors from across the world for writing excellence, including the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, selected for the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the NYT Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK), and given the 2013 Heartland Award for Fiction by the Chicago Tribune. Even if the book hadn’t won all these awards, I would be writing the same gushing review so please don’t think that I’ve been swayed by all these accolades. They are completely and wholeheartedly deserved by Ngozi Adichie.

To the book itself: the plot follows the lives of two young Nigerian people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as their paths interweave and separate over the years and across geopolitical lines. Both grew up together in the same time and at the same secondary school, but Nigeria (at that time) was under military rule which meant that a lot of its citizens wanted to leave for elsewhere and other opportunities. Ifemelu departs for the U.S. to attend university, leaving Nigeria with the plan that Obinze will join her once his visa is approved.

However, the visa process takes much longer, and as Ifemelu moves through her college, she becomes a successful blogger on the intersection of race and life (from her perspective as a “Non-American Black”) whilst Obinze struggles to make a life in England as an undocumented immigrant. So there is the dichotomy of gender, there is the dichotomy of race, there is the comparison of life choices and the role of luck, and then there is the question of what constitutes success in each person’s life. The novel has a lot going on, but it’s all occurring underneath the surface because the writing of the story is so strong that the characters’ lives remain the focus for the reader. It’s a slow-burn novel which sucks you in as the pages turn, and once finished, the book stays in your mind for days after. (It’s that good.)

If you’d like to spend the next few days in the company of two smart and very normal young people who are trying to work out which paths to follow in life, this read will give that to you. It’s been so long since I’ve jumped in with both feet to a great fictional read and been transformed into the lives of these characters that I have to admit that this was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without resorting to hyperbole, I think that this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I kick myself that I haven’t picked it up before now. Do yourself a favor, and choose this title soon. I bet you’ll thank me later.

The Worst Journey in the World (Volume II) – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

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Exploring is all very well in its way, but it is a thing that can be very easily overdone.

Goodness me. What a ride this autobiographical book was as it follows the (true) travels of a well-meaning (but rather poorly trained) crew of men trying to reach the South Pole of Antarctica. It was heart-breaking to read of their efforts knowing that, in the end, a significant portion of them would die of hideous things such as starvation, frost-bite, and other causes.

apsleyI had read Volume I of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book earlier, and had been mesmerized by its details, so happily picked this volume up to continue the journey. Volume I had clearly shown how challenging the expedition had been for the crew, and Volume II, now including excerpts from the journals of some of the other expedition members, was absolutely harrowing in terms of hardship and misfortune for these well-meaning men.

“We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.” Excerpt from one of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s more modest entries in his journal.

The expedition had had two goals, neither of which really supported the other, a situation which could be argued to be one of the fundamental reasons why it went so haywire in the end. Let me explain:

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The ship, Terra Nova, in 1911 when it first arrived in Antarctica.

The two competing goals were both very focused on England taking the lead in both the scientific world and the exploring world – to be the first team to officially reach the South Pole (and thus “claim” for the Empire) and to also engage in some serious scientific research thought to help further understanding of the still fairly young idea of evolution. Funding had been short, and so the months before the expedition had been spent traveling around looking for financial donors, all of whom expected to have a stake in the outcome, and with only a small government grant to support them, they were heavily dependent upon the private sector.

The media at the time was very focused on which country would reach the South Pole first, a focus that has been compared to the media frenzy of the Space Race between USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had tried to reach the South Pole on two earlier attempts without success, and indeed, this particular expedition’s leader, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, had attempted to reach it just a few years before. (Shackleton was a third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 unsuccessful Discovery expedition, and in fact, was interested in making a bid to reach the South Pole around the same time as Scott. He and Scott had a pretty big argument about this and treading on each other’s toes on the southern continent and this led to all kinds of ramifications for both of them, including who had the most honorable intentions. Scott won that battle, but really, I think Shackleton wasn’t a bad guy.)

This was also just before the start of WWI, and so England had not yet been exposed to the huge mass casualties and psychological damage of losing an important war and large swathes of its young men. England was still supreme in the world, the “sun never set on the empire”, and it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that an Englishman could not do if he applied himself.

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Map showing both Scott’s (green) route and Amundsen’s (red) route to South Pole. (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Combine this with the fact that Norway (the upstarts! :-)) were also in the race for the South Pole, and things were a bit fraught all around. When the Scott Expedition left England to sail for the Antarctic (via New Zealand), they left with loads of optimism and with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team was not going for the South Pole but would be, instead, heading for the North Pole. All seemed to be running smoothly with little competition, until, around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, Scott was informed that Amundsen’s team had done a switcheroo and were instead racing his team to Antarctica. (Not very good sportsmanship, what ho?)

So, two expeditions were hurrying seaward towards Antarctica, both with the weight of their countries hanging heavily around their necks. Scott’s ship almost sunk at one point in a terrible storm losing some of their ponies and dogs overboard (a detail which would become important later on), and it was all rather awful.

Keep in mind that few people had ever been to this continent, and so it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. No one really knew the terrain that well or its seasonal weather, so there was a lot of guesswork going on with regards to equipment and life experience. The equipment was also technically terrible (although cutting-edge at the time), with plenty of wool, cotton, leather, canvas and fur (for boots, gloves, sleeping bags etc.) None of this helped.

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Siberian ponies on board the Terra Nova prior to arrival.

They finally landed in Antarctica after being stuck in pack ice for a delay of 20 days which affected food supplies, and meant that the expedition would land later in the year than planned which meant less prep time and more bad weather. Unloading the ship meant other calamities, including losing one of their motorized sledges which fell off during the landing process and upon which the expedition had been banking on. The weather was terrible (not surprising when it’s close to the Antarctic winter months) and the expedition were also intent on using ponies as pack animals to haul supplies around. With such obstacles to their planned time line, Scott was advised to kill some of the ponies for food, but Scott refused to do that.

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Captain Scott in his end of the hut in 1911. He thought it would be a good idea to organize the one hut along the same lines as a Naval ship: officers at one end and enlisted at the other. divided by a  blanket. He, of course, got the better end of that deal…

Before they’d even started, three ponies had died from the cold or because they slowed the team down, three more drowned when sea-ice unexpectedly gave way, but Scott was still confident about meeting the end goal. And after reading this whole document, I’m still not sure whether Scott was too over-confident with his expedition goals. Looking back, it seems somewhat foolish to gamble with all these unforeseen misfortunes, but was there really an alternative to moving forward? Perhaps not at this point.

And so the expedition moves forward. It survives appalling weather conditions, frequent blizzards, an ever-lowering stock of pack animals (including dogs). The team receive more ponies half-way through to supplement their stock, but these new ponies have been sent from India and thus are poorly suited to Antarctic conditions. The men work closely together, and there is no mention of any insurrection among the ranks, but boy. I bet there were plenty of grumpy comments inside their heads!

“The day really lives on in my memory because of the trouble of [one of the expedition members]. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his body harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a little dazed.”*

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Emperor Penguins.

So, I mentioned that the expedition had two feuding goals, one to reach the South Pole first and one to do scientific research work. One of the main scientific objectives was to collect some specimens of embryonic eggs from the huge Emperor Penguins who inhabited land down there. (Some penguins weighed up to 6.5 stone/88 lbs and some 45“ in height, and their embryos were believed to be important evidence in proving a point of evolution. As it turns out, theories had evolved by the time the expedition returned to England which was heart-breaking for me as the reader. Some of these men had risked their lives to get samples and to bring them back in one piece, and then when they were turned into the museum, the expedition rep was told that the specimens weren’t wanted. Yikes.)

cherry_garard_sign_revSo, anyway, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this read and could chat for quite some time about it, but am pretty sure that perhaps not all of you will share this new obsession. It sent me down Wikipedia rabbit holes for quite some time. There were also overlaps between this expedition and our recent trip to England, as the young author and researcher mentioned earlier (Apsley Cherry-Garrard and only 24 years old) happened to be born in Bedford (my home town), we saw one of Scott’s original journals on display at the British Library, and then at the Royal Mews, there is one of the Queen’s carriages that contains a piece of wood that was the actual hut that Scott and some of his team lived in during this expedition. It also contained some wood from the earlier Shackleton expedition as well. (Amazing how things can overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)

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The Queen’s carriage at the Royal Mews. This vehicle contains a piece of Scott’s main hut during the Antarctica expedition 1910-1913. (It also contained some wood from Shackleton’s polar hut as well.)

Apsley, btw, had no polar experience, was not a scientist, had few relevant skills, but gave quite a bit of financial backing to the expedition (twice!) and thus was selected based wholly upon that. His journal entries about his novice skills can be witty, but are also heart-breaking:

“I confess I had my misgivings. I had never driven one dog, let alone a team of them; I knew nothing of navigation; and [the depot} was a hundred and thirty miles away, out in the middle of the Barrier and away from landmarks. And so we pushed our way out… I felt there was a good deal to be hoped for, rather than to be expected.”

[Very sad face.]

One very very sweet factoid about Apsley: He was rather shy and didn’t get married until he was about 50 or so, and when he first met his soon-to-be much younger wife, the first gesture of courtship he did was to give his wife a small stone. This only makes sense when you know that the first gesture of courtship between an Emperor Penguin and his mate is when he gives her a small stone with which to start building their nest. He called the stones “penguin jewels.” Awww. Sweetness.

I’ve just ordered a biography of Apsley yesterday, so very much looking forward to reading that. He seems to be one of the nicest people on the expedition now that I’ve read his journals.

*Hugely massive understatement!

 

Cliff Notes of England Trip…

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HMS Belfast, Royal Navy vessel in WWII.

As mentioned, our trip to England was lovely. Weather in England was wonderful (for us). It was cloudy, cold, and rainy which, after the endless summer here in Texas, was a treat. Gloves. Rain coat. The whole thing. Bliss. I did notice that people in London only wear shades of black, grey/gray, or dark blue so my bright pink raincoat stood out a bit. 🙂 No worries. I embraced “being American” (as usually these are the people wearing really bright colors in UK), and I got to stay nice and dry under that colorful exterior.

The flight to the UK ended up being fabulous as, although we bought the cheap seats, the flight was almost empty and so I ended up being able to lie down across three seats the whole way. ZZZZZ. Still, ended up with jet lag and taking a nap about 4p the first day, but wow. What a difference a sleeping flight can be! I’ve flown back and forth across the Atlantic regularly for 30+ years, but this “being able to sleep across a whole row” thing has happened only a few times so I really appreciate it when it does. Hooray for traveling off-season.

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The River Ouse in Bedford, England. We spent a lot of our childhood messing around on the river (a la Toad and Mole).

The first few days were spent in Bedford, the town in which I grew up and where my lovely mum still lives. Lots of memories for me as we wandered around and down by the river (see right-hand pic), and for the first day or two, the streets seemed to be like Toy Town as they were so much smaller than the streets in Texas! Got used to that pretty quickly though, but did keep on having to remember to “Look Left” instead of right when we were crossing the roads.

When we finally arrived in London (where my brother and family live), we had a really in-depth tour of the Houses of Parliament, and I think I finally have the House of Lords vs. House of Commons sorted out now. (Only taken 50 years!) I also learned a ton about the HoP which I didn’t before, so thanks to a good guide (and a former teacher), we had a good time. Did have to have a cup of tea to recover after that though. 🙂

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The Queen’s Coronation Carriage.

Another place that we visited was the Royal Mews, which is where the Queen’s horse-drawn carriages (pic above) are kept and the horses looked after. We’d never been before, so it was really interesting to walk around and see all the carriages in the collection.

Visited the British Library (which was a joy), and saw some of their treasures there (including an original copy of the Magna Carta [sort of the British Constitution] and one of the journals from Captain Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica. (Really interesting as I’m reading Volume 2 of the diaries of the men who were on that 1910-1913 trip and who returned in one piece.) Collection pieces ranged from ancient music texts to the original draft of some Beatles music to more up to date stuff, and if you’re ever in the range of the British Library, I really recommend a stop there. You won’t regret it.

Saw my Favorite Uncle Peter (:-)) who took us to a historical clothing exhibition at the Barbican (fascinating) and then out to dinner (yummy). Visited HMS Belfast, a WWII naval ship permanently lodged on the river, and walked across the top level of the famous Tower Bridge. (Well worth doing. It has a glass floor and a mirror ceiling as part of the visit, and this was really discombobulating for lots of people including me. Very fun though. (Check out the pic just below the Tower Bridge pic below. I’m taking the photo looking up into the mirror which is then reflecting the view down [where you can see the traffic]…)

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Got to hang out with my bro and see where he works (University College of London). They have a long tradition of bringing the mummified corpse of the founder (Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux ) to various special meetings and then keeping him in a glass case when he’s not working. Hilarious. Heard my bro play blue grass at a pub with some friends of his, and really just had a good time.

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The UCL Founder’s mummified corpse who actually attends meetings every now and then.

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And maybe, just maybe, brought back some Jaffa Cakes (above) and other pieces of deliciousness that I couldn’t live without… 🙂

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Speaking of food, we went into a McDonalds for a drink, and saw this sign where one can order a meal using the Welsh language and others. (The “Cymraeg” button in the middle.)

Watched three movies on the plane on the way back. (Just couldn’t get into reading for some reason, but that’s ok.) I regrettably watched the recent Absolutely Fabulous movie (but I wish I could get that time back, to be honest). Then I watched Enough Said (which was fun and poignant), and then one more which I can’t seem to remember… Still, a fun way to pass the time if you have to sit down in one place for ten hours (as one does when one is flying from UK to US).

So, had a nice time and really recommend traveling to UK in the off season. (Admittedly, some of the sights do close in October, but there is so much other stuff to do, that it really doesn’t matter much…)

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A Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

So, I finally picked up “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy,” Viktor Frankl’s mesmerizing autobiography about his time and thoughts when he was captured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps in Germany during WWII. I’d been meaning to get to this for a very long time, but I felt that I needed to psych myself up to read it as I know it was not going to be an easy time.

Now that I’ve finished it and can reflect back on the experience, I see that it was a tough read in both the subject matter and also the philosophical discussion that is in the second half of the book, but it was hard mainly because it was true – that people had treated each other in this manner. What. The…. ?

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna during the 1930’s when Hitler came to power and instigated the horrendous concentration camps that tortured and killed millions of Jewish people (and others) at the time.

It’s a time that I find incredibly hard to understand as it’s so completely removed from anything that I would choose to do (I hope), that there seems so little overlap between the life I choose to lead and the lives of the people who ran these camps. It’s easy to judge over time and distance, but I hope to god that I would have tried to stop this whole genocide if I’d had the chance, but who’s to know? The human condition is a strange one at times.

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Back to the book: it’s basically a book in two parts, the first part detailing the three years of his life (and those of others) when Dr. Frankl was picked up and sent to Auschwitz, and then the second half, which is more of a philosophical discussion of how he made sense of the whole ordeal and came up with his school of treatment called logotherapy.

It’s an intense read, and if you’re feeling remotely sorry for yourself when you start to read this, I can almost guarantee that you will have your perspective shifted by the time you finish it. How could one compare the minor trials of life today with the lives of these prisoners who had *nothing*? Literally nothing.

It’s not an easy read, but how could it be when one considers that topic matter? What’s amazing is that anyone survived long enough to walk out of the camps when the final day of freedom arrived. (You’ll need to read Frankl’s description of how some of the prisoners reacted when the gates of the camp were first opened…. It’s incredibly powerful to read.)

So, Frankl discusses his ideas on the meaning of life for himself and others, and concludes that life has meaning to be found in every moment of living and that it never ceases to have meaning, even when one is suffering profoundly.

This is the concept of “tragic optimism” — that no matter how terrible life can be, it only ceases to have meaning when there is no hope for change in the future. Once the hope is gone, then life is over – that love is the ultimate and highest goal that (hu)man can aspire to.

To me, the book seems to be about the importance of deriving meaning from suffering – that one suffers only so that you should learn from it to be a better person and if one loses sight of that goal, then one is doomed. If one feels a sense of control over one’s environment, then you will fare better than those who are physically strong but do not have that sense, and the existential angst that people may feel at some point in their lives is due to the lack of personal agency they may feel in their lives.

I’m not sure. It’s hard to write about this clearly without babbling and sinking into a morass of blather, but it seems to me that perhaps the key to a good life is to serve others. If one looks outside oneself to help someone else, therein lies the meaning of life.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

I urge you to read this for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. My vague personal ones are above, but I think this book is too important for you to try and draw your conclusions from my version of things. It’s a hard book, yes, but it’s an extremely important book and frequently in the top ten lists of influential books for people. It’s an astonishing read. Don’t miss it.