Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Oh Pledge, What's Happened to You?!

Back in February, I pledged to borrow a book every month from my local library in the spirit of ‘if we don’t use it, we might lose it’ (even though my local library isn’t under threat of closing). For two months, I borrowed books that weren’t quite Me...and since the last one, I’ve not borrowed any.

Oh Pledge, what’s happened to you?!

Part of the problem is, I think, that I realised I needed to devote more time to choosing a book from the library, rather than plucking them from the shelf or just-returned cart – and I’ve not made the time to do this. Naughty me, then.

I think, though, that the main problem is that I’ve been struggling with my reading of late. I’ve been drained and tired and not concentrated well, ’tis true, but I’d also started not-quick books that have been dragging their heels...and the lack of progress and (if I’m being gut-wrenchingly honest) enjoyment has made me a bit of a reluctant reader, which isn’t usually my problem!

A couple of days ago, I finished one of these slow-burn books, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Like Girl Reading, the recommendation came from Channel 4’s Reading Group booklist – and while it sounded completely different to what I normally choose, I was imbued with the reviewers’ pleasure and amusement, and I wanted a bit of that myself.

Now, I’ve had a fraction of it – the story is interesting, the characters quirky and thought-provoking and the pace quick, actually...but I’ve been reading it in ten-minute tea-break chunks, with maybe twenty minutes during my lunch break, rather than giving it hours at a time. I have been able to put it down (though it hasn’t left my thoughts and I have remembered to go back to it) and let days, perhaps even a week, pass before I pick it up again. Oops.

It is worth reading, despite my bit-at-a-time approach: a Western with a 21st Century-relevant moral, it will make you wince and smile in equal measure. Is it one to keep on the bookshelf? I’m not sure! And that, ladies and gentlemen, probably means I didn’t love it enough...

The other started-but-not-yet-finished book is the biography of my favourite poet, The Life of Emily Dickinson by Richard B Sewall. Now, to be fair, this is a tome of a book; a proper scholar’s tome. In that sense, it can’t be quick to read because there’s so much information, detail and analysis. I think it’s a really well written to-be-studied biography, and it’s clear that Sewall has done his research and states when he’s surmising what might have happened so as there’s no confusion...but it is long and, as it allots a chapter to each of the people in Emily Dickinson’s close relationships, it can feel, for the casual reader, a little laborious.

I think, too, that because I’d been so looking forward to receiving it for my Easter present (yet, alas, I still consumed a couple of Easter Eggs...damn the cheap sweet shop opposite work!), the bulk of it overwhelmed me – and by this I mean its actual size and weight, rather than page-length. I don’t buy hardbacks, you see, because I find them cumbersome to hold: I can’t curl up with a cup of tea in one hand, book nestled in the other. A hardback or equally bulky book requires both hands holding it, with a cushion standing by to prop it on when they ache; the bookmark has to be inserted when a sip of tea is taken, otherwise it clunks closed and the page is lost; and so, for me, the magic is interrupted, disrupted. Reading The Life of Emily Dickinson lying in bed is no easy task, and so that cuts down on the time I have to read it.

But I shouldn’t be moaning, really: I am enjoying it, though a little impatient to move on from the people she knew (and thus who can tell us about her – she was a recluse who wilfully left little written records or papers when she died, and so getting a gauge of what really made her tick is very tricky) to get to the good stuff: how she wrote what she wrote; her writer’s process. Alas, I am realising that there might be very little that Sewall can say on this subject, as Emily Dickinson kept her poetry personal (other than sending it to friends) rather than public (i.e. discussing how and why she did it, and expressing the desire to publish it)...but there are the final two chapters which seem to concentrate on her reading and writing, so I just need to get there!

So, with my Pledge nonexistent for the last few months and my arms aching from the weight of this biography, what should I do to choose my next read?

Just hold on and wait, I think...till the need to read grips me so tight that even the cereal box will do...! Then, you see, I shan’t be able to put it (or the cereal box!) down and so shall be properly immersed in reading, just as I love to be.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Vienna Views III

For my final look-back, I'm going to share with you my penultimate day in Vienna. I visited (on my very own – gulp! – in a country where I speak none of the language – eek!)
Schloss Schonbrunn, a huge (there are 1,441 rooms!) 17th Century palace.

See, I wasn’t kidding – even standing at the grounds entrance gate a good distance away from the castle, I still couldn’t get it all in! Thus, I turn to Google Images to do so instead:

Inside, you can’t take photographs (which is a shame, but understandable), but you can pick up an audio guide...or a booklet. No prizes for guessing which one I opted for! But just as my experience with the Mona Lisa in Paris (see my moan here – ), today’s preference for technology left me cold. During my visit, I only spotted one other person with the booklet – everyone else was using the (to be fair, quiet and non-static) audio guides.

While I appreciate the technological advances society has made, over-reliance on technology is, to me, prescriptive and prohibitive to real, actual experience. You can’t take the audio guide home as a souvenir, as I have the booklet. You listen to someone else telling you the history before you even take in each room and its contents (because, as soon as you see the number relevant to that part of the tour, you press the keys on the guide), rather than discover and react to your own first impressions, then read up on it after. You are a sheep following a well-trodden path as you listen to pre-recorded directions and look at what you’re told to look at, oblivious to the other sheep and the potential of non-sheep (like me!) standing around you as you bump into them without excusing yourself, rather than being an individual (definitely me!), spotting what interests you, sourcing your own intrigue...and your physical space!

Am I a relic, then, wanting to be present and to actively engage in my experiences, rather than to hold a device which assimilates this for me?!

Anyhoo, I’m getting away from my experience of Schonbrunn...!

So, rant aside (sorry!), there I am, wandering around this amazing stately palace, taking in the sights and noting thoughts and reactions on my (free!) booklet (and yes, I realise that I’m a special case – non-writers wouldn’t be doing this!). What struck me the most, then? Well, the splendour and sumptuousness of the interior, without doubt – royalty really is another world! I’ve googled the interior and copy a couple of the images here, so you can see what I mean:

This is a ceramic heater - much more elaborate yet less cosy than one of our fireplaces! - in the Porcelain Room, which is decorated with "213 pen-and-ink drawings which were executed by Franz Stephan and some of his children." Talented family!

On a people-level, I was impressed with the character of the Empress Elisabeth, who born on 24th December 1837. At 16 years old she married Emperor Franz Joseph, and was known to her family as ‘Sisi’.

Sisi was, so the guide booklet says, “...a self-confident woman. She led an independent life, travelling extensively...she kept up her extensive correspondence and wrote her diaries and her poetry...” She seems to have been a bit of a feminist and certainly an individual, and I regret now that I didn’t pick up the book about her in the gift shop, as I’d like to know more about her and her writings. Ah, well, another visit sometime beckons!

The room which made the most impact was the one in which I felt, like a shiver over my skin, the stately and poignant atmosphere – and this was the Vieux-Laque Room. Remodelled in 1765 (so before Sisi’s reign) at Maria Theresa’s instruction, it forms a memorial to her beloved late husband, Franz Stephan.

The guide booklet says, “Black lacquer panels from Peking were set into the walnut wainscoting and embellished with gold frames.” I found the decor to be truly moving; not overly melancholic but suitably sober, with lavish embellishment to mark the greatness of the man she lost. After her own death, a note she’d written was found in her prayer book. In it, Maria Theresa “...had noted the length of her happy marriage, right down to the precise number of hours.”

Moving outside, then, the grounds of Schonbrunn are vast, incorporating gardens, an orangery, Roman ruins, and even...a zoo! Unfortunately, during my tour of the palace interior, it began to rain heavily and, though I waited almost an hour, it refused let up, so I didn’t get to see the gardens or the zoo (which I was really looking forward to!).

Other things that I didn’t have time to do in Vienna include seeing an opera, riding in a horse-drawn carriage, or heading outside the city into the mountains...

...all of which means I shall just have to go back, of course! I’d better get saving those pennies...!

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Vienna Views II

Welcome to the second part of my Views of Vienna, shared with you...


I don’t have any technical knowledge about architecture, and I can hardly draw a straight line with a ruler, but when I look at buildings I know what interests and pleases me...and I usually take an admiring snap while I’m standing there!

Here, I particularly like the arching, curved streetlamps; so much more elegant than the ones I see every day...!

Parks & Trees

I do love a good tree, and a lovely bit of greenery too...thankfully, Vienna didn’t disappoint on either count:

And, as it's chucking it down with rain here in good ole Blighty as I reflect on my time in Austria, I thought I'd leave you with a little Viennese water:

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Vienna Views I

I’ll be honest and admit that I’d never before thought of Vienna as a holiday destination – mainly because I get fed up of rainy grey days and tend to plump for sun-sea-sand weeks away, though with a fair bit of history/culture to balance out all that sun-tanning!

However, visiting my lovely friend Charlotte, who moved to Vienna last year, has shown me I’d definitely go back.

Now that I’m back home, fully rested from the rather arduous travelling (bloody late coaches! We’ll say no more...!), and back to work (boo!), I thought I’d prolong my holiday by sharing my views of Vienna with you:


Taking first place in my favourites list is Stephansdom, or St Stephen’s Cathedral. Founded in 1137, further construction/renovation continued until 1511, with conservation work currently taking place. Much is said about the spires, roof and tombs (all pretty amazing, it has to be said)...

...but for me the wonder, the awe, is in the stained glass windows.

Perhaps it was simply that we popped into Stephansdom at just the right time to witness the sun, at just the right strength, streaming through the stained glass at just the right angle. The filtered fusion of colours transformed the interior of the cathedral into an art installation, and I was stunned to silence.

I’ll forgive you for thinking my pictures must have been photoshopped but I promise you they haven’t: those shades, that atmosphere, are real. The sun truly is a special thing. It took me a while to realise that the stained glass windows were clear, coloured panes; no images are etched onto them to tell a story (which is the opposite to any stained glass window I’ve ever seen) – yet this omission made the cathedral’s message somehow more special, more enlightening.

Anyhoo, that’s quite enough philosophy for one day! Let’s move onto the equally enriching experience of...


This is a Viennese specialty...and a very yummy one at that!

Sachertorte is a chocolate sponge cake coated in dark chocolate icing, with apricot jam in the centre. I took mine without cream (because I hate it!), but I’ve just discovered that cream is traditionally eaten with it as Sachertorte is thought of as dry. Oops. I do like a bit of tradition, but, to me, the chocolate-and-apricot taste was just divine on its own and not at all dry!

Food-wise and working backwards from dessert to main course (as I always do when I go out for a meal...choose which delectable pudding to indulge in first, and then pick a good, light main to justify it!), I would also recommend the...

Weiner Schnitzel

Traditionally, it is a veal dish but you can opt for the popular pork version; coated in breadcrumbs, it is fried until golden brown and served with potato salad. I tried it on my first night in Vienna and the few, warm bites I had were lovely and tasty...but unfortunately I was ill with a migraine and couldn’t manage any more  L  However, Austria is like America in the way of the doggy-bag (or boxing up your leftover meal to take home with you), which is a very un-English thing to do (we either scoff it down or, most unusually, leave it!) and quite hard to get used to – but very handy, in that we got to take my Schnitzel home with us. I can report that it is equally tasty eaten cold and with fresh Austrian rolls (which I think were called Kaisersemmel...) for breakfast...though this way of eating Schnitzel probably has any chef up in arms!


On my second day in Vienna, Charlotte and her husband took me to the Museumsqurtier, which is a hub of art museums, galleries and exhibition spaces. We sat outside at a cafe and watched the world go by for a bit...and had the weather been nicer (it was grey and raining...see, I just can’t escape it!), we’d probably have had a good wander round. Though I didn’t visit any of the places in the Museumsquartier, I am rather jealous that Vienna has such a place, as I’d love to be able to access such culture so easily each day. How about it, then, town planners?! Charlotte and I did take in the sights of fellow art museum the Albertina the following day, so I did fit a bit of culture in!

I'll see you later in the week when I share more Vienna Views...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Shortlist Success... mine!  My poem 'Arson' was shortlisted (alongside 9 others) in Writing Magazine's 'Hot First Line' competition.

Woop woop!

Okay, so it didn't win.  It didn't take first place (or even!).  But it was considered; it was one of a select few.  One of the best.

And that's good enough for me.

This competition required a specific first line to be used, and this made me re-define, edit and re-write my already-existing poem called 'Arson'.  This process made the poem more centred, immediate and raw - all of which would've been missed if I hadn't taken the risk and entered the competition.

And the risk has paid off - twice.  Not only is the poem sleeker, but it's also been shortlisted...and that's the first time it's ever happened to me.

This recognition instantly inspired me to have a go at the magazine's next poetry competition, a haiku.  Now all I've got to do, of course, is come up with something good...!

So, however slight it may be in the grand scheme of getting published, I am going to embrace and enjoy my Shortlist Success, and you're welcome to join me...

...woop woop!