What I Read This Week: June 30th to July 7th

Hello. There are spoilers on this page. I know it was published in 1938 but I managed to read it without knowing what was going to happen, so that might be the case for you as well. Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens.

 

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I didn’t read every single book I was supposed to when I was at university. I know it’s not realistic to expect everyone to read every single book on a reading list, but when there’s a seminar scheduled on it, you really should read the book. I still feel bad about the books I didn’t read, so every now and again I pick one up and give it a fair shake. Eventually I’ll not feel as bad. This week, I decided to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and damn, do I regret not reading it when I was supposed to.

I should point out that I don’t remember a damn thing we talked about in that seminar. I knew the plot was somewhat similar to Jane Eyre (which I did read when I was supposed to, and loved), but that’s it. I knew none of the twists. It worked on me as it would have worked on someone in 1938.

And boy, did it work on me. The slow start put me off a bit, but I know that was meant to emphasise just how humdrum the narrator’s life is, and how narrow her prospects. It highlights that she has no choice but to accept Maxim’s proposal.

You know, as the narrator does, that Maxim has some dark and mysterious things in his past. You expect that some of this might become illuminated as the narrator integrates herself into life at Manderley. Not fully, of course. If you know it’s like Jane Eyre, you know there must be some apocalyptic reveals towards the end. But you expect some kind of idea. Something you can guess at.

But the narrator can’t integrate. And for the first two thirds of the book, Maxim barely speaks.

This negative space, where the reader has as little to go on as the narrator inside the text, and only a little more outside of it (shut up Derrida), leaves the reader grasping for meaning as desperately as the narrator does.

And du Maurier knows you are thinking about Jane Eyre.

The way she makes you lead yourself into thinking it’s a story about a man tormented by the loss of his life’s love is nothing short of masterful. When du Maurier floods the story with oxygen and lets the fire burn as bright as it wants, you’re just as devastated as the narrator is to find out that those people saying she was nothing like Rebecca were paying her a compliment all along. And how terrifying it becomes when you realise that it’s not some writerly trick that drew you along, it was Rebecca herself, getting revenge on the behalf of the mad woman in the attic, refusing to be reduced to a deus ex machina.

Think about it in relation to Jane Eyre, which is a novel that is about the titular character, who is allowed to have her own name at the expense of the woman who is locked away. In du Maurier’s inversion, the narrator is refused a name and the title lets us know just who the most important actor in the story is. Rebecca.

It’s just a perfect example of what leaving a void in the story and letting the reader fill it themselves (with the odd nudge) can do.

These are just some quick thoughts. It has been a while since a novel has held me in its spell like Rebecca did, and I wanted to go over some of the ways I think it did it. I’ve just started reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. (Am I on some pre-adaptation Hitchcock bender? I’ve only seen Psycho and Rear Window.) I’m in the middle of like ten other books as well. I am a serial starter.

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A Return to Journaling

We live in the age of anxiety. If you don’t believe me, just bear in mind that that a man you wouldn’t trust to order a pizza has the nuclear codes. Feel anxious yet?

I’ve spent my entire life trying to managing my anxiety.  Some of my strategies have been more effective than others. This is ok. I am doing my best to view life as an iterative process. There is a lot of stuff I have tried that hasn’t worked. Can I rework some of these strategies, or do I need to develop entirely new ones? I am still trying to figure it out, and I keep having to remind myself that, at 26, I have a lot of my (don’t say miserable James) life ahead of me; and while I shouldn’t be solely concerned with self-improvement, it is something I should at least bear in mind.

But there is one strategy that I have returned to that definitely has its uses, and I think that the energy and time expended in it is more than worth the benefits. I am talking about journaling.

I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was about ten years old. I still have all of them. Every so often, I go back to them and leaf through. Lots of angst, naturally. Lots of longings I don’t remember having for people I don’t remember knowing. And lots of first drafts of poems and stories.

That last point I’d like to expand on. I’ve found keeping a journal an excellent creative practise in numerous ways, but the drafting is what I’ve found the most useful. Because a journal functions as a judgement-free, and private, space, it is an excellent way of shutting up the inner critic and just getting something down. No one ever has to see it. You can go back immediately and type it up, or you can leave it there, using the journal as what Harlan Ellison calls the trunk, letting a piece of work rest before coming back to it with fresh eyes. And the act of typing up is useful in itself, as it forces you to reengage with the text in a different way, something that is essential to proofing and editing. I don’t recommend writing a 100,000 word novel this way, if only for the sake of ease, but for drafting poetry or short stories, it is an excellent method, and one worth trying.

For the other great use that I have found, I return to the anxiety angle. I am the kind of person who has trouble getting thoughts out of their head. Nagging worries, fears, fantastical scenarios. There are other strategies for dealing with this kind of thing, and I am not saying journaling is a silver bullet, but I have noticed that when I am journaling every day, and taking care to write down what things are worrying me, and what things I can’t stop thinking about, the volume of the noise in my mind gets turned down a little bit. Of course, it might be that I am experiencing a (relative) period of calm of my mind’s own accord, and am journaling because I have the surplus mental energy. I intend to force myself to stick to journaling every day for a month or so, and see which way round this goes.

And of course, I’ll have a record of it. If you’re going to experiment, you should try and collect some data.

The idea of a journal being a thought dump does just make intuitive sense to me. There is no judgement, and total privacy. It is a way of getting your thoughts outside of your head so you can hopefully see them with a bit more clarity, and the act of writing itself forces us to think differently and to focus, something that anxiety makes difficult. But it doesn’t hurt to practise in an environment where there is no fear of failure and no expectations whatsoever, bar doing your best to write down what you did that day, and what you thought and felt as you did it. Even if you’re having a bad time, don’t underestimate the power of paying it forward to your future self. One day a record of how bad you once felt might serve as a helpful highlight of just what has improved in your life, and how much better you’re doing now.

N.B: I would like to stress that I am not a mental health professional, and that your experience almost certainly differs from mine. I just wanted to detail a practise that I’ve found useful in the hope that others might too. YMMV.

I Started a Patreon!

I had some free time today, so I decided to finally get off my arse and set up a Patreon. If you enjoy any of my posts on this blog, or any of my poetry or fiction, then this is the best way to support me other than buying my books. Don’t feel pressured, I am going to keep writing no matter what happens, but it would be nice if I had more of a stable income, and this will hopefully be a step towards that.

For now, there are no special rewards because I am trying to focus on getting another book out. If the response to the Patreon is good, then I’ll have to think of something, probably a look at first drafts, or DRM-free copies of my books. If there’s anything you’d like, let me know.

This seems a good time to remind you that I am also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and probably some other stuff that I’ve forgotten. If you’d like to follow me somewhere and can’t find me, just ask 🙂

Corbyn, Europe, and Da Yoof.

I’ve seen various takes regarding what’ll happen when the youth realise that their saviour “oh” Jeremy Corbyn is a hardcore Eurosceptic and is gonna endorse our exit from the single market. Considering the rebellion that’s just broken out, it’s as good a time as any to demonstrate why this is irrelevant.

I’m 26. I voted remain, and I voted for Corbyn’s Labour party. I am old enough to be a pragmatic voter, and young enough that I got shafted when I voted Lid Dem in my first ever general election.

I knew Corbyn campaigned for remain reluctantly. I also knew that my MP at the time (Stewart Jackson) was an incorrigible arsehole, and that the growing Labour minority in my city (Peterborough) was the only way to stop him.

I got to vote for the winner for once. It was marvellous.

Before this, I voted remain knowing that the EU had fucked people my age in Spain and Greece. I didn’t want to get fucked even harder by a Tory party that hates people under 40, hates the working class, and hates the idea of human rights legislation.

If Jeremy Corbyn was PM (he isn’t? Ed.), and had campaigned for us to leave Europe so we could begin a project of social reconstruction that we couldn’t otherwise, I would have voted leave.

A bit like the way you voted for £350 mil for the NHS, eh?

It looks like we’re leaving the EU because the political class and the newspapers have the bit between their teeth. What can we do to persuade them? It is obviously the wrong choice. I can’t give you a reason not to cut your own nose off, other than that it generally seems a bad idea. If you persist in cutting your own nose off, what can I do?

At least we came out and voted. If we voted Lid Dem en masse you’d all be blaming us for a Tory majority and our lack of pragmatism. Many of us voted Labour because we’ve grown up with a Tory party in a blood frenzy and Labour (see: Peterborough) were the only chance of stopping them.

I’m not surprised, but if we have to leave the EU (we do, because the newspapers say so), then I’d rather do it under Corbyn. And anyway, it’s not my fucking fault in the first place, is it? I voted for Kodos.

Yet More Free Classics (This Time With Extra Shiny)

Free books are great, great books are… great, and Project Gutenberg is great, but you might have noticed that some of their offerings aren’t as great as I might have lead you to believe before. Or at least, not presented as greatly as a great book should be; typos in Pride and Prejudice, spelling errors in Great Expectations, no table of contents for Moby Dick. The errors aren’t common, and for the low low price of free, you can’t really complain (you can volunteer to help, though). The errors are, however, enough to make a serious reader wish for a copy that’s been properly proofed and edited to modern standards. But that will cost you money, won’t it? Or a trip to the library, and who wants to go outside when there’s reading to be done?

Here is your new best friend: Standard Ebooks.

They take public domain works and polish them, giving them the quality in presentation that the quality in their content deserves. They add things like cover images, contents tables, and modern typography. And they fix the typos and errors.

And then they give the fixed-up books to you for free.

Wonderful.

PS. If you want yet another source of free books, I suggest checking out Project Gutenberg Australia. Australia’s copyright law used to diverge* from that of the USA, and as such there are works that are considered public domain there that aren’t in the USA or the UK. But the internet’s a thing, so you, person from X country that isn’t Australia, can download them anyway.

Enjoy.

winslowhomerthenewnovel

The New Novel by Winslow Homer, 1877

* “Because of differences between Australian and United States (where Project Gutenberg is based) copyright law, Project Gutenberg Australia contains many works not available in Project Gutenberg, including works by Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, Ayn Rand, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Wallace, S. S. Van Dine and Dylan Thomas.” – From the Wikipedia article on Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Sims: A Reading List

I have been watching lots of Lazy Game Reviews‘ videos lately, and was intrigued when he mentioned that the manual for The Sims had a reading list in it for people who wanted to further explore the themes of the game.

A quick Google didn’t find me a copy of the list, and a little further digging found me this tweet from @Ccollinsada1, who posted a picture of the reading list, to the joy of someone else who had been searching for it. For the convenience of anyone else looking for the reading list in The Sims’ manual, here is the text verbatim.

– – –

Recommended Reading

Here are some titles that might enhance your understanding of some of the background and social issues entertained in The Sims. Warning: all are filled with provocative ideas; Maxis disavows any responsibility for encouraging deep thought.

Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski (July 1987)

Penguin USA; ISBN; 0140102310

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher W. Alexander (June 1970)

Harvard University Press; ISBN; 0674627512

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander; Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein (1977)

Oxford University Press (Trade); ISBN; 0195019199

Architecture: Form, Space, & Order by Frank D. K. Ching, Francis D. Ching (February 1996)

John Wiley & Sons; ISBN; 0471286168

Housing by Lifestyle: The Component Method of Residential Design by James W. Wenting (November 1994)

McGraw-Hill; ISBN; 0070692939

Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time by John P. Robinson, Geoffrey Godbey (Contributor), Robert Putnam (June 1997)

Pennsylvania State University Press (Trade); ISBN; 0271016523

Maps of the Mind by C. Hampden-Turner (March 1982)

MacMillan Publishing Company; ISBN; 0025477404

Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life by David D. Friedman (September 1997)

HarperCollins; ISBN; 0887308856

Making the Most of Your Llama by Linda C Beattie (Editor), Araneen Witmer (Illustrator), Kathryn Doll (Editor), Dr. Linda Beattie (September 1998)

Kopacetic Ink; ISBN; 0961963417

Finding Your Perfect Love by Arthur Clark, Cassandra Skouras (January 1998)

Rosebud Press; ISBN; 0965276902

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size by Tor Norretranders, Jonathon Sydenham (Translator) (April 1998)

Viking Press; ISBN; 0670875791

I Know Who I Wanna Bartlebe

I’ve been meaning to write up a post about guilt and the feeling that you should (could) always be doing something, but I am getting around to it now because I read this article last night about people who try and turn every moment into a productive one by always having an audiobook, podcast, or some other edifying material on the go in their headphones. I was going to write it up last night, but I started playing Football Manager, and then I played some Hearthstone, and I didn’t get any writing done. Which, oddly enough, is the crux of this post.

I am very, very fond of doing nothing. However, I live in the 21st century, and that means that I could always be doing something, even when I should be doing nothing. I always have my phone on me, and at the very least, I could always be reading on my phone. I wrote about this, about using your phone as a way of taking a library of classics with you everywhere, and that’s perfectly valid, but I’ve come to the point where if I have a bus journey I spend quietly thinking to myself, I feel like it was time wasted. I could have been reading.

Or at home. I just quietly watch some YouTube videos. I listen to an album. I stare out the window. I could have been writing. And any time I am not writing, or not thinking about writing, I feel guilty.

This is partly a trap of my own making. I work for myself and I work from home. There is the odd external motivation, but largely my motivation has to come from myself, and I have to motivate myself to work within the same context that I relax. There is no work/life balance because there is no fulcrum. I could always be working.

It would be easy to fix, of course. Get off my arse and write, ideally early in the day. Not necessarily with a set target, but just motivate myself over that first hump, and get some work done. Then if I spend the rest of the day playing Football Manager, at least I got some work done.

But there are days I find that difficult, and it seeps into every activity. I can’t fully enjoy playing Football Manager, because I could be writing. If I do write, it wasn’t enough, or it was enough, but it wasn’t of sufficient quality.

Basically I’m saying that you should ideally think about having a real job.

It occurred to me a while ago that a solution to this problem might be to write about videogames. I do like to write about videogames sometimes, but it’s not the meat of my work. It’s a reasonable idea, it would allow my play to have some kind of productive outcome, but there are some problems with it.

The first problem is that it continues to mix work and fun. I’d start only playing games I wanted to write about. I’d continue to feel guilt if I didn’t balance it right.

The second problem is that my audience is largely uninterested in videogames.

The third problem is that I often write fiction, and apart from maybe Ender’s Game (which has its own problems) I can’t think of much good fiction about videogames.

I am reminded of something Picasso said, that painting and fucking do not go together.

To write well, you have to read. To read, you have to, first of all, not be playing videogames (unless it’s Planescape Torment). You also need quiet, contemplative time in which the more subconscious aspects of creativity can work. Videogames fill that quiet time with static.

Basically I advise you to get a real job and a primary hobby that isn’t videogames.

None of this is that big a problem. I am just good at overthinking and treating minor inconveniences as major problems. I still get work done. I still enjoy myself with my hobbies. There are no clear distinctions, but I know plenty of people with real jobs whose personal lives have been messily encroached upon. The 21st century is weird. And that’s not even taking into account that as someone working in a creative field, social media is both necessary and a huge fucking detriment to my work, but I’ll talk about that some other time.