Saturday, 31 December 2011

Looking Back at 2011, Forward to 2012

No matter how you slice it 2011 has been a big year for me (and Tim).  I began the year working full-time, sending off applications to PhD. programs in Canada and the UK.

By February, I had heard back from one of those universities with a rejection, which was slightly heart-breaking.  But later in the month, I had a "yes" and knew that I would definitely be going back to school for doctoral study, which, geek that I am, was an absolutely euphoric moment.  From then on, it was a matter of where we would be moving and I would be studying, not an "if".  And then, out of the blue, in late March, I opened up my e-mail at work one morning and saw the acceptance from Oxford.  It was very exciting but also a bit of a blow because I had not ever really expected to be accepted and figured that I couldn't go without some serious funding coming my way.

But, after much thinking and talking over the next couple months, we decided to go for it and began the biggest change of our lives, probably.  I entered into reams of paperwork - university contract, acceptance of college offer, visa paperwork.  We moved out of our beloved basment suite of two years and hopped across the Atlantic to set up house from scratch all over again.

We've been here for three and a half months now and somehow, it feels like home.  This all feels incredibly and surprisingly normal.  It would have been nice to go home for Christmas, but we were okay over here too.

Next year, we can look forward to my folks visiting for a couple weeks in April, and, as of yesterday, I booked our flights home for late June, after Trinity Term ends and I have (hopefully, fingers crossed very hard) passed my transfer to DPhil status.  It will be so wonderful to see family and friends again, to wander around Saskatoon and see the river and experience hotter summer weather than I expect we will get here.

Other highlights of the year.  On the writing front, I finally buckled down and did two more drafts of my work-in-progress (I'm typing up that third draft now).  The book really feels stronger and better now and I think I will try submitting to agents next year.  I think it is ready.

On the DPhil front, I think I've gotten the hang of using the libraries and I've been able to attend some really interesting lectures.  (The highlight of course was the evening in early November when I heard both A.S. Byatt and Steven Pinker speak).  I'm still working on being motivated to work, which is a bit of a challenge since this program is quite unstructured.  On the other hand, I have gotten a great deal of reading and thinking about my topic done already and I feel reasonably confident heading in to 2012, when I will actually have to start writing chapters.

Travel.  We've done a pretty good job at travelling around the UK.  So far we've been to London, Portsmouth, Salisbury, Bath, York, and Edinburgh.  In 2012, we'd like to do some travelling on the Continent and I really want to get over to Ireland as well.

Happy New Year to any and all who happen to be reading!  May 2012 bring good things your way.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Oxford Soundtrack: Fall 2011

I listen to a fair bit of music while I work, both on my thesis and my novel (and while doing the dishes).  I tend to listen to one thing pretty obsessively at a time, with other artists and songs thrown in for flavouring.  For this reason, my first term at Oxford and the lead up to Christmas has had a pretty identifiable soundtrack, which I will share with you, if you are interested.

If you, like Tim, have absolutely no interest in European symphonic metal, you will probably want to skip this entry.

Moving over here will probably always be associated with the first single off Evanescence's self-titled album, which came out at the beginning of October.  I remember very clearly blasting "What You Want" in the car on our terrible speakers while driving around Saskatoon during our last weeks there.

The album itself came out right as term began (and, ahem, leaked shortly before that), so I listened to it repeatedly during my orientations and my first few weeks of research.  For the record, I think it's a great album, an improvement over their last effort and, frankly, better than We Are the Fallen's debut record (though I'd be very happy to listen to their follow-up).

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmastime in London

Yesterday, Tim and I popped up to London yet again for another day of sight-seeing and friend-visiting.

I began the day with some concern that we would not make our quite early train, because the parking lot was covered in black ice and so was part of the major road that run by our place.  However, the icy road almost immediately became simply wet road, so we were all right.

Upon arriving at Paddington Station (which is fast becoming my favourite, if only because this is now my way into London), we headed south and walked across a misty Hyde Park, as small flakes of snow fell (and eventually turned into rain).  We’ve had a wee bit of snow in Oxford this week too.  It never stays, but it makes things feel a bit more like Christmas over here.

The Serpentine, with the ferris wheel from Hyde Park's rather cheesy Winter Wonderland
 We met up with our London friend and her sister in Knightsbridge and set off to explore the vast consumerist innards of Harrod’s.  Harrod’s is fun to visit and sickening.  There is so much decoration, so much on sale, the prices are so high.  It is horrifying to realize that there are people in those pre-Christmas crowds who are actually there to buy £25 000 earrings and incredibly ugly futuristic sofas and purebred pets and designer clothes for children.  We were just there to gawk and snicker.  Tim, who dislikes shopping at the best of times, describes it as “hell” but was glad nonetheless to have seen the spectacle.

We then set off in search of coffee, seeing Royal Albert Hall along the way and across from it, the memorial to Price Albert, which is huge and neo-Gothic and gaudy, featuring a golden statue of Prince Albert.  Oh, Queen Victoria, what were you thinking?  (The Scott monument in Edinburgh is also very tell and neo-Gothic and slightly over the top but is much more aesthetically pleasing than this Albert memorial). 

 We had some Starbucks and the parties split up: our friends in search of Christmas markets and we searching for the Leighton House Museum.

 The Leighton House has been a museum since 1900 and was the home and studio of the Victorian artist Lord Leighton.  This is a great place to visit, especially since entrance is only £5 (or £3).  The best part of the whole house is the Arab Hall on the ground floor, which has a crazy dome, a brass chandelier modelled off those in mosques, a fountain, and walls of 16th and 17th-century blue Syrian ceramic tile.  There are also couches set into the Egyptian-style windows on either side of the hall.  Just beautiful.  Can you imagine having such a thing in your very own house?

Next, we hopped on the Tube (miraculously, most of the lines were running well – which hardly ever happens on a Saturday) and went to Embankment station to our old London “neighbourhood” by Trafalgar Square.  This is where Tim and I stayed when we came here on vacation in 2009.  Incidentally, it’s also where I stayed when I visited with my parents in 2008.  It’s one of the only parts of London I can sort of propel myself around without the aid of a map.

We noticed that the fabulous Sherlock Holmes restaurant and pub was open again (it had been closed when we arrived in September).  I goggled at the lovely and huge Norwegian Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.  We discovered, unsurprised, that the day’s allocation of tickets to the big Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery had sold out.  Oh well.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to this exhibition, but that’s fine.

 Then, we headed over to Piccadilly Circus, which Tim had never seen.  That was where we encountered our first great sea of humanity for the day.  Christmas shoppers were out in full force, which makes sense, since yesterday was the last Saturday before Christmas Eve.  (Yikes!  When did Christmas get so close?  What will I get Tim for Christmas?  Well, probably books.  But which ones?)

We headed down Piccadilly, checking out the giant Waterstone’s (which I believe is the largest bookstore in Europe), Hatchards (the oldest surviving bookstore in London, once frequented by Queen Charlotte and the romantics – very cool and creaky), and Fortnum and Mason (into which we popped our heads, verified that it was a cool old department store, and then skedaddled out of again to get away from the Christmas crowds).

We wandered around St. James’s Square (the garden is sadly not open to the public on the weekends).  We saw Chatham House, which has been the home of three British Prime Ministers, and a house where Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter and Charles Babbage’s partner, once lived.

And then, the pinnacle of the day.  We went on a tour of the London Library, which was originally founded by Thomas Carlyle because he was dissatisfied with the non-circulating nature of the British Library's collection.  I only discovered the joys of the London Library a few days ago via Stephen Fry’s blog post on the subject.  But I did dimly remember that the opening scene of A.S. Byatt’s Possession also took place there.  I decided we really ought to have a look around while we were in London.  Even though they don’t usually give tours to prospective members on Saturday, we got one.  (Note: The London Library is totally independent and does not receive public funds.  It is therefore supported by annual membership fees, which are, unfortunately, too expensive for little old us.  Also, I don’t live in London and I do have access to the Bodleian at the moment…)

We got to see the 1890 stacks with their interesting cataloguing (arranged alphabetically by subject, so that books on Coastal Erosion and Demonology are not all that far from each other, both found under “Science and Miscellany”).  The stacks are several floors high and the floor itself is slatted metal.  I had to be careful or the heel of my boot would fall between slats. 

We also got to tour the original reading room, where Carlyle and Dickens and George Eliot read and researched and where Stephen Fry and Tom Stoppard read nowadays.  It’s a beautiful room.  Tim and I were in book lover’s heaven.  We saw the other reading rooms and the art book stacks and got to peer into the neighbouring building recently acquired by the library to allow for further expansion. All told, it was the most wonderful tour of a lovely library and we were led around by one of the friendliest library ladies imaginable.

To end the day in London, we wandered down to St. James’s Park and sat and watched the swans and ducks and pigeons and squirrels as the sun began to set (at 3:30 or so in the afternoon…)

 And then we came home.  Google Maps tells me we walked about 11 km yesterday, which explains why we both slept so well last night.  Also, my legs are sore today!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Life in Britain: The Weather

I've been wanting to write something about the weather here almost since we arrived, because I knew we were going to have a very different experience of winter here than we've had at home for the last quarter century.

This was brought home to me last night, when Mansfield's MCR (graduate students) had their Christmas Party and Oxford had its annual Christmas Light Night celebrations.  Erm...  It doesn't really look or feel like Christmas to me.  At all, really.  The grass outside my window is still green, and freshly mown, though on two mornings this week, it was was covered in frost (for the first time since we've been here).  There are also still some leaves on some trees.  Some trees have many, many leaves.  And last night, at about 11:00 pm, as Tim and I walked our bikes past the Christmas Light Night carnival rides that were being taken apart and the abandoned food stands, we were commenting that it was quite pleasant outside.  This is very strange for early December.

Autuumn has felt so different this year.  The temperatures have ever so slowly declined from about the high teens (when we got here in mid-September, with a brief blip in early October when we had temperatres up around 25 and higher) to daily highs of 6ish.  And I know that, apart from cold snaps, that's about the coldest it will be all winter.

In Saskatchewan when it starts to cool off, one experiences a sense of impending doom.  Because once it gets cold and once you get a good layer of snow, the snow and cold just aren't going away anytime soon.  We always joke that the snow is always gone by my Dad's birthday - April 20th.  It's generally a good date to judge by.  Melting takes place in March.  But December, January, and February are generally just cold (and by cold, I mean, say, average daily highs around maybe -15, with quite regular dips below -30 and, at least once a year, -40.  And that isn't even bringing in the windchill...)  Winter is awful in Saskatchewan.  We're used to it, however, and have learned to survive.  Mostly this involves not going outside for extended periods of time.

And while I think being able to walk around at night without my head covered (though I have made the transition to my wool coat now) is weird, I suppose I have to admit that Saskatchwan is where the weird and wild weather is.  Somehow we've been gifted with some of the coldest winters in the world.  I'm really quite glad I get to skip a few by being over here.

On the other hand, as we have yet to see even the barest hint of snow, it doesn't really feel all the Christmassy, though the lights and the Christmas trees in Broad St. and the Bodleian courtyard help a bit.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review: Chime, by Franny Billingsley

Because Franny's Billingsley's National Book Award short-listed novel Chime is so much about it's narrator's voice and psychology, it's probably best to begin at the beginning:

I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

Most people on trial for their lives don't generally plead for justice to be done. But Briony Larkin is not your run-of-the-mill heroine.

The novel opens in the aftermath of the death of Briony's beloved Stepmother, under mysterious circumstances. Everyone thinks she committed suicide, but Briony thinks she knows better. Briony lives to take care of her mentally unstable twin sister Rose. She believes herself a witch (a hanging offence in the Swampsea) and so keeps herself away from the swamp and the Old Ones who live there, in order to keep her powers and her anger and jealousy under control.

As I said in beginning, a lot of this novel is based on Briony's psychology: her guilt for her sister's condition, her lack of love for those around her, her early admitted and deep-seated belief that she is truly wicked, only barely holding her dangerous powers in check.

The story really begins when Eldric, a college-aged fellow from London comes to the Swampsea.  His father has come to the village to drain the swamp in order to develop the land; the railroad is finally coming to town (the setting is early twentieth century, with references to switch on lights and motor cars).  I was worried at first by descriptions of "golden, electric Eldric", afraid he would turn out to be yet another too-good-to-be-true hero, but Eldric, and his relationship with Briony, is much, much more interesting than that.  Eldric has his faults: a certain lack of direction, a rebellious nature, but he's just what Briony needs.  He makes it possible for her to begin looking at the world and herself somewhat differently.

This is a novel of twists and turns, discoveries about one's self and others and stories and the fickleness of memory and the ways in which all these things work together to create some notion of a self.  And I don't know that I want to say too much more about the plot, because one of the distinct joys of this novel is watching Briony's narrative unfold, as she unpicks the tapestry of her life.

I really have only good things to say about this novel.  The voice, characterization, and plotting are strong and sure.  As a reader, I always felt I was in good hands, no matter what might happen next.  The novel goes to some very dark places, but I was happy to follow Briony and Billingsley anywhere.

I will also note that the prose is delectable, rich, rhythmic, and original, especially in its evocations of the swamp.

Other notes:

I mentioned earlier that this novel was short-listed for the 2011 National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category.  There was an unfortunate bit of controversy at the beginning, as Lauren Myracle's Shine was inadvertently named as a short-listed title.  The judges apparently meant to nominate this book instead.  Altogether, it was a mess.  But that was how I first came across this book.

I find the National Book awards are a good go-to for finding good books to read.  Previous years' nominees included Laini Taylor's Lips Touch: Three Times, which I have raved about elsewhere, and Canadian Martine Leavitt's Keturah and Lord Death, which is also fantastical and fantastic.

Book design: I must say I think the novel is not well-served by its cover (the UK edition forgoes the choker but plays up the sparkles).  The novel is both older and more sophisticated than the cover might have you believe.  I see the UK paperback edition is going for a rather different look.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Third Draft!

This afternoon, I finished the longhand version of the third draft of my WIP novel.  Now I just need to type it up, making more changes as I go.  Then, I need to do a pretty hardcore line-by-line edit (in which I hack and slash out every unnecessary adverb), and then press-gang some family and friends into reading the thing and giving me feedback (that's right, Tim, I'm looking at you).

And then, I think it might be time to start working on that query letter and synopsis.

So far, looking at this draft, it feels yet tighter and more polished than the second draft was, though the big changes were made in that draft.  I didn't make any plot changes this time.  Except for a section in the middle of the novel that was restructured and had a chunk of plot substituted in, I was always pretty happy with the novel structurally.  I'm a big planner and outliner, so I tend to figure plot structure out rather earlier than some writers, perhaps.  I'm like this with my academic writing, too.  I can't really start until I actually know where I'm going and what I want to say.  Otherwise, I'm hopelessly lost.

The other interesting thing I noticed this time around was that toward the end of working on the end of the second draft, I was seriously considering changing the ending.  It felt uncomfortable for me and I even tried rewriting the last chapter.  But I stopped halfway through.  It didn't feel right to change it.  And this time, no qualms.  The ending the novel has always had felt perfectly right and it stayed, with very few changes.  Go figure.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Day-Tripping Again: Salisbury

If it seems like we've been doing a lot of travelling, it's partly because we have BritRail passes and we need to use up a set number of travelling days.  We used up one day today by heading down to Salisbury, which takes less than two hours to reach by train.  We were lucky and had a comfortable and actually reasonably sunny day for travel.

First, we went to the famous cathedral, which boasts a very tall spire, the tallest in England, I think.

Then, we decided to hike the two miles north to Old Sarum, the site of the original motte and bailey castle and first cathedral.  It was used by William the Conqueror and Henry II kept Eleanor of Aquitaine prisoner there for awhile.  It was already a ruin by the time of Henry VIII, so he allowed all the good building stone to be hauled away.  Sadly, there isn't a whole lot left, but it's really cool to see.  The foundations of the first cathedral are also visible, at least in part.
Modern-day bridge over palisade.

Cathedral remains
It should have taken us about 45 minutes to walk up to Old Sarum.  The first part was lovely, on a path along the River Avon (which is really shallow in Salisbury).  Then we discovered that the course was not nearly so well signed as the friendly woman at the Tourist Information office had assured us.  We took two unanticipated detours on our way up.  We took the bus back to Salisbury.

However, the hiking was worth it for the fabulous views of the Wiltshire countryside.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Life in Britain: Transportation

I don't know if this is exactly going to be a series, but I thought that since I had been living in Britain (or at least, to be specific, Oxford) for just over two months now, I would try to comment on some of the quirky or interesting things that have come up.

I'll begin with a vignette from last night to explain why I've chosen this particular topic to begin with.  Tim and I and an English grad student friend all went to the Magdalen Film Society's showing of The Maltese Falcon.  As my friend and I were locking up our bikes, which we discovered were exactly the same make and model, we had a brief discussion about what bike paraphernalia it is wise to leave with one's bike.  For instance, I've made a policy of leaving my helmet with my bike, because it was never stolen all of last year when I biked in to work on campus everyday.  Hardly anyone leaves their helmets with their bikes here for fear of thievery.  My friend also said that she had been told to take her lights with her.

(Interesting point: if you are biking at night, you must have front and back lights or you may have to pay the police a fine - This makes sense, since the roads will almost always be clear here, so cycling all year round is much easier than in Saskatoon, where the roads are covered in snow for a good chunk of the year.  Also, with the time change, it starts getting dark around 4:00 pm here!  You definitely need lights on your bike). 

My lights went missing a couple weeks ago, but I figured at the time that they had possibly fallen off, or maybe been stolen and if so - in my innocence, I assumed this would be a one-time thing.  So again, I was not that concerned.  But what should we discover on leaving the theatre?  Our back lights were gone.  Alas.  So now I am quite seriously considering taking my lights with me from now on.  (Why would someone steal bike lights?  Do they have resale value?)

Other points on cycling in Oxford.  They profusion of bike lanes and bike paths and the relative flatness of the terrain, really make getting around on a bike very simple.  I think it has great advantage over driving a car around town (unless one has a family, or needs to haul stuff around), because you don't need to worry about one-way streets and you can't really get stuck in gridlock.  Oh, the joy of being able to whiz up the bike lane past the backed up cars during rush hour, as they all wait patiently to enter the roundabout up ahead.  Schadenfreude!

Also, the bus is a wee bit pricey here and it would take about an hour to walk down to central Oxford from where we are, so a bike is a great thing to have.  I can get down to the libraries, my college, and the English Faculty in approximately 15 minutes, depending on how lucky I am with traffic lights.

My pet peeve re: other cyclists.  Slow cyclists, especially cyclists who are slow because they are TEXTING!  a) This must be very dangerous and b) if I am hemmed in by cars on my right, so that I can't pass, then I am stuck behind a person who is toodling along without a care for no other reason but that they must see what their friend has written.  This has only happened a couple times, but it raises my ire, let me tell you.

Incidentally, it surprising how easily one can get used to cycling on the "wrong" side of the road.  It really feels quite natural, except that I now have right turns and left turns slightly mixed up in my head.  At home, right turns were easy; now you must wait for a great deal of oncoming traffic.  It seems a bit strange.

As for relations with other vehicles, the cars generally do seem to keep a good eye out for cyclists, and I haven't ever been in peril of being squashed by anyone making a left turn into me.  On the other hand, Tim was hit - very softly - by a car who did make a left turn into him, even though he was just minding his business in the bike lane.  The driver somehow managed to very lightly hit the back of his wheel.  And then drove off after making sure he wasn't injured.  But the damage was done.  The wheel had to be replaced and the necessary expenditure made.

As for being a pedestrian, I've discovered that one tends to cross at corners at controlled intersections (though often the cross walk can be set back a ways from the corner - we noticed this especially in Edinburgh).  However, you don't generally seem to cross at corners otherwise, but at random "islands of safety" set up in the road.  And even then, the cars never stop for you.  You must make your dash very wisely.  I've only found one actual crosswalk in this city, at which the cars do stop for poor, lowly pedestrians.  And that's it.

One last note about pedestrians.  While I sympathize with their plight of not having right of way, I also have an axe to grind with the ones who clog up the designated bike paths.  Sigh.

As for trains, they are uniformly wonderful.  Except when they are full and one can't get a seat.

Future topics of discussion include: food and grocery stores and the weather.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Recent Travels, Part II: York and Edinburgh

Administrative stuff:

1)  A lovely friend reminded me yesterday that the original settings for this blog did not allow for comments from non Blogger members.  I have since changed this because, goodness gracious me, I definitely do not want to discourage commenting.  So, please feel free, if you are so moved, to comment.

2)  You will see new pages at the top of the blog.  I thought I would write up a few explanatory things in case someone who does not, in fact, know me in real life stumbles upon this...  Also, if for some reason you are curious about my research or my novel, there's some information on both of those items.

But, back to travelling!

We got back from London on the Sunday and on Wednesday, November 9th, we were off again, a a five-day extravaganza to the North, in celebration of our ten-year anniversary (yes, we were absolute babies when we started dating!).  Luckily, there is a pretty direct train route from Oxford to York, which is nice, because for some points north, you have to route through London first, which takes extra time.

Our apartment-hotel was close to the train station and the Ouse, so it was a very good jumping off point for touring.  We meandered through the touristy, but delightful shopping streets and medieval avenues first thing, not bothering to follow a map because you can almost always orient yourself by looking for the towers of York Minster (which is the largest Gothic Cathedral north of the Alps by the way and is filled with medieval stained glass that was hidden away in Yorkshire country houses during World War II to keep it safe because it is so precious).

We walked through the Minster, which was larger and grander than I had remembered it being.  We also took a hike up the central tower.  They are very cautious at the Minster and have a long list of ailments that bar one from climbing the 275 steep, narrow, and winding steps up the tower.  If you have ever done the 500 or so steps up to the top of St. Paul's in London, however, this tower does not seem nearly so daunting.  And you can get some fabulous views from the top...

On a clear day, you can see the cooling towers of a nearby nuclear plant, but alas, we had a misty evening.

Next day, we toured through the Undercroft museum at the Minster and walked down the Shambles, a medieval street that was once a meat market.  We also took a hike along a chunk of the remaining medieval city wall.

And then it was back on the train to Edinburgh.  I love taking the train up to Scotland.  For one thing, it makes me feel like Harry Potter on the Hogwart's Express, and for another, it's great fun to watch the increasing proliferation of sheep (which we just don't have at home in Saskatchewan) and to watch the hills start to rear up and to see the views of the North Sea.  If you are not from Saskatchewan, you must know that it is very flat and very land-locked, so hills and sea views are rather exciting.

The first day, we settled into our Edinburgh apartment-hotel, which was right on the Royal Mile (we could hear lots of carousing and bag-piping from the street below).  While in Edinburgh, we visited the University of Edinburgh, which has some lovely buildings...
We also were lucky to find the Palace of Holyroodhouse open to visitors.  Tim wishes he had visited before reading Walter Scott's Waverley because Bonnie Prince Charlie throws a ball in the Great Gallery at Holyroodhouse!  Well, now I will know how to picture it when I read the novel.  We also toured the beautifully ruined Holyrood Abbey, which is right beside the palace.
We also visited the National Gallery of Scotland, where I got to see the original portrait that graces my copy of Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey (which I had finished just a couple days before).  This is a small but really nice gallery, with a surprising number of paintings by Dutch masters.  We also ventured into the Georgian New Town, which feels much more like Bath or London that the Old Town up on the hill does.

Our anniversary itself we celebrated by not cooking (yay!) but eating tasty leftovers instead.  There was also camembert and a sparkling rose involved.  It was lovely.

And then it was back to Oxford, and back to work for me.  (The reality and surreality of going to school at Oxford hit me with renewed vigour on returning to my regular pursuits of reading in the Bodleian and wandering along Broad St.  Amazing what a few days away will do.)

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Recent Travels, Part I: London

Well, now that I've got an essay out of the way, I can get back to blogging properly for awhile, I hope.

I've managed to cover a goodly chunk of the UK this month.  First off, I was in London November 4-6 for the purpose of attending the Reimaging the Brontes conference put on by the University of Warwick and hosted at the Senate House Library of University College, London.  What a lovely, and gigantic building!  I didn't take a picture, alas.

Our lovely friend "London Katherine" kindly hosted me in her student flat and we, along with another visiting friend, did a nice walk along the Thames on Friday night and then explored Spitalfields Market on Sunday morning.  I got a sweater with cats on it.

Parliament at night
 The conference itself was really great, though I was mentally exhausted by the end of it and had a giant nap after dinner.  I also discovered that there is apparently much more to be said about the Bronte juvenilia, which makes me a happy academic, since this is what the first chapter of my dissertation is going to cover.

Also related to the Bronte juvenilia, a previously untraced and unpublished Charlotte Bronte manuscript has turned up and is going to be auctioned off by Sotheby's next month.  It's expected to fetch 200-300 k quid.  Yikes.  The Bronte Parsonage Museum Library has put out an appeal for funds, in order to make a bid for the manuscript, which is the previously missing second issue of Charlotte's The Young Men's Magazine.  These magazines were written in miniscule print and were very small, originally toy-soldier sized.  I really hope a library, preferably one in the UK gets this, because I would love to go have a look at it.  If it disappears into a private collection again, it would be much more difficult for scholars to get access to it.

On the Sunday, Tim came down on the train and we went to the John Martin: Apocalypse exhibition at the Tate Britain (which was a bit pricey, but worth it).  John Martin was often seen as a popular painter and wasn't necessarily taken seriously by the artistic establlishment for his blockbuster, sublime paintings of biblical and classical scenes, often of destruction.  He was better known for the innovations he made in the art of engraving.  The Brontes are known to have had at least 4 of his prints in the house, some rather large and therefore expensive.  Charlotte's visionary scenes and grand city-scapes could definitely have been inspired by his art.

John Martin - Belshazzar's Feast
We also visited the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum and then we headed home.

Next up: our tenth anniversary trip to York and Edinburgh

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Still Alive

I'm still here but I've got my nose to the grindstone, as I research and start writing (soon) an essay for my supervisor for Friday (!).  I'm currently reading an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from 1819 on a British mission to the Ashantee; I've been reading lots of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte's early writings; and I'm about to start such interesting books as Slavery and the Romantic Imagination and The Rise of the Colonial Novel.  Also, I am slightly saddned to report that having finished Charlotte Bronte's The Professor and Anne's Agnes Grey (which I actually really enjoyed - this novel doesn't always get great reports), I now have no Bronte novels left to be read.  Alas.

However, I still have 4+ volumes of early writings to get through, plus letters, plus poems.  That's something, isn't it?

Once this essay is done, I promise reports on my recent travel and one (possibly two) book review(s).  Also, commentary on British grocery stores, transportation, and weather.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Londonbound!; Northbound!; and Revision

I'm heading down to London today to take in a one-day (free!) conference on Reimagining the Brontes.  My supervisor and another Oxford English professor will be speaking, along with a number of other Bronte academics, some of whom I've read articles from in the past.  My lovely friend at LSE has kindly said I can bunk at her flat, which is great.

I'm also rather excited, as, I realized yesterday, this will be the first train trip in Britain I've tackled on my own and my first time propelling myself around the great metropolis by myself.  I've always been travelling with someone else when I've been in London previously.  I have this grand vision of myself roaming around the streets and parks solo.

I don't think I'll have a lot of time for roaming however, as the conference will take up almost all my Saturday.  But Tim's coming down on Sunday so we can do some sight-seeing.  There's a special John Martin exhibit on at the Tate Britain which I would like to see, as I know the Brontes were big fans of his apocalyptic paintings and engravings.

Also on the travel front, Tim and I have booked a little trip up north for our anniversary (our 10th!  Yikes!).  We're going to stay one night in York and three in Edinburgh.  We're hoping we can also pop into Durham to see the Cathedral and the Castle, but we'll see.  It will depend on train schedules and how much baggage we're hauling around.  I'm quite excited.  I really love both cities and Tim's never been to York.  Also, I will have fond literary memories of York, having now read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which begins there and involves magic being done to the Minster itself.

Also, on the revision front (and now this post and really jumping all over the place), my longhand third draft is now well over half done.  I'm getting very close to the exciting bits of the story, which may speed my pace up a bit.  However, except for when I was in a fog of writing and writing preparation the week last week, I've been really good about putting in my one hour a day of working on the book.  It's amazing how much you can get accomplished if you can just force yourself to put in some time every single day.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Lull

I'm in a bit of a lull now, having yesterday sent off a piece of writing to my supervisor.  Now I'm recovering from the burst of writing, reading, and thinking and being slightly lazier than I ought to be.

I had put aside my novel revision last week to focus on academic stuff, but I got back into it with a vengeance today.  I'm almost half done with the long-hand version of this draft; I will, of course, still need to type everything up when I'm done.

About to head back to the Bodleian for the afternoon, take in a seminar on Scott around dinner, and then I'll be working on a scholarship application and/or doing my reading in the evening.

We are tentatively planning a day-trip to Cambridge (gasp!) for Saturday and have a friend coming for a visit from London on Sunday, so there's lots to look forward to.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

First and Second Weeks

Term is officially a quarter done (as the terms are only eight weeks long here).  So far, my goal has been to create a relatively regular work routine.  This has worked, more or less, I would say. 

I've discovered that I like working from home in the morning, because then I can really enjoy my morning coffee(s).  The only place at school I've found where one could work and eat/drink is the graduate common room in the English Faculty, but that wasn't really designed as work space, so I haven't used it.  Otherwise, there are the fantastic libraries, which do not allow for the consumption of food.  This is sad because I've realized that I get very hungry while sitting and doing research.

I've also discovered that I don't mind working evenings and weekends, but I suppose this is what I always did during my undergraduate and Master's degrees, so I guess that makes sense.  Also, so far, I'm quite enjoying my research, which helps a lot, since it's kind of my life now.

Rowing, alas, did not work out for me this year, as I could not pass my swim test.  You had to do two lengths of the swimming pool, 5 m of underwater swimming, and then tread water for 2 minutes.  My problem was that, even through three tries, I could only force myself to stay underwater for about half the necessary distance.  I was saddened by this fact, but I'm kind of happy I don't have any 6:50 am practices to worry about anymore.

I've found other things to get involved with, like being library rep and being on the conference organizing committee.  Both committees met for the first time this week.

Last night, Tim and I donned our "smart" clothes and headed over to Mansfield's chapel for a jazz, chocolate, and champagne night, which was great fun.  No room to dance, however.  Also, they ran out of champagne about an hour and twenty minutes in, which was very distressing for all involved.  The chapel became suspiciously emptier after the champagne ran dry.

I've also taken in a meeting of the Interdisciplinary 19th Century Culture Forum, which is a gathering of student from English, History, and other subjects who discuss the 19th century (and go on field trips - next week to the Museum of the History of Science!).  I also attended a fantastic seminar on bigamy in sensation plays and novels this week, which I loved.  Also, it reminded me that I really need to read more sensation fiction.  I've got Wilkie Collins' No Name sitting on my bookshelf...  (Currently reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time - took me long enough!)

And now I'm in lockdown mode because I have my very first deadline coming up on a piece of writing I need to get in to my supervisor next week.  I'll be happier once I'm on the other side of that, but I am happy to be forced to start writing out my ideas early in the dissertation process, even if they don't necessarily make it into the completed work.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce is being released on November 1st (not that far away anymore!) and is the second book in Bunce's Thief Errant trilogy.  What this means is that you should run out and read the first book in the series, StarCrossed before November 1st.

In StarCrossed, the reader is introduced to a sneak thief named Digger, who takes up with a group of nobles to escape capture for theft by the secret police when a job goes awry and her lover is killed.  Little does she know that this particular group of nobles, hidden away in their wintry fortress, where Digger is posing as a lady's maid, are involved in an incipient religious civil war.  All this is related to magic, which Digger can see but not practice.  Digger is a fascinating narrator, used to hiding in the shadows, witty, but also damaged.

Digger is back in her natural habitat of backstreets and thievery in Liar's Moon and meets up with one of the noblemen from the previous book, who has been put in prison for murder.  Digger vows to clear his name and is drawn into "fantasy noir" adventures in order to do so.  If this book is anything like the first in the series, I'm sure it will be splendid.

Also, both books are set in a high fantasy setting that reads like the Renaissance in terms of clothing, book-making, etc.  Bunce is working within a world she's been building since she was a teenager, so the religious systems and history are well thought out, without threatening the integrity of the story.

Elizabeth C. Bunce's first novel, A Curse Dark as Gold, which won the Morris Award for best first YA novel, is also worth reading, though quite different in tone and subject matter.  It is a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin", set during the beginnings of the industrial revolution in a British mill town.  Instead of turning corn into gold, the protagonist must turn thread into gold.  She must also make increasingly fraught sacrifices to stay in the Rumpelstiltskin figure's good graces, while managing the mill her dead father has left behind.  This novel is really well-written, with great characterization, and dark, folkloric atmosphere.

In short, I highly recommend reading Elizabeth C. Bunce's novels and I anxiously look forward to another volume of the Thief Errant series and anything else she may choose to publish.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Tim and I have BritRail passes that allow us to travel on any eight days in a two-month period.  I believe we have until November 18th to use up all our days.  On the first day, we travelled to Bath, and on the second, we went to Portsmouth.  Neither of us had been before and it is an easy 2.5 hour (approximately) train ride down.  Also, we both have a liking for British naval history, so it was time to go.

On the way down, we had to change trains at Reading and Southampton and got some good book-reading in.

Once we arrived in Portsmouth, our first stop was the Historic Dockyard, which has many attractions.  We saw two.  First, we toured HMS Warrior 1860.  This was the very first iron-hulled warship and it was powered by sail and steam.  It never saw action, because its creation rendered all other warships of the era obsolete overnight.

I wasn't expecting to see Britain's first iron-hulled warship when I arrived in Portsmouth, but I was mightily impressed but it.  Very big and grand, with the added distinction of being the only Victorian warship still around today, and that only because it was twice rejected when offered for scrap.  Thank goodness!

Next, we wandered further down the dockyard to the main attraction.  The Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon's navy, at dry dock in all its glory.  Well, mostly - you see, it's topmasts are being restored.  But it was still an impressive sight.

A section of damaged mast from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Admiral Nelson's very fine cabin.  Nelson got around all right on the ship, being only 5' 6".  The captain, who was 6' 4", and the ship's carpenter (6' 7") had more trouble.
The plaque marking the spot where Nelson was shot and fell during the battle.

 From there, we went to the City Museum of Portsmouth to see their collection of Arthur Conan Doyle memorabilia, which was quite neat.

As a last stop, we went to Portsmouth's Church of England cathedral.  Outside was a sobering reminder of the effects of war on civilians.

The newer section of the cathedral, very bright and open, and almost Roman or Greek in feeling.
We headed home, with a change at Basingstoke.  That train was incredibly crowded!  We spent the first part of the journey at the back of a car, crowded in with passengers and baggage.  After the first stop, I managed to get a seat, but Tim had to stand for almost all the journey back to Oxford.  But we heartily enjoyed our afternoon in Portsmouth.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


I'm not a very good "joiner", as the Brits would say.  I like to have time to myself.  On the other hand, my doctoral course is so self-directed, that I've been keen to join up in a few things, in part because it's excellent training for life as an academic, and also because I like having something productive to do th at isn't my research, but really, I also like to inject some structure into my life.  So, here's what I've comitted myself to thus far.

Rowing for Mansfield College, as a total novice.  Again, I still need to pass my swim test (on Sunday) but I don't forsee any difficulties there.  I think this will be great exercise and a good chance to meet people at my college - including undergraduates!

I'm going to be part of an organizing committee for the 2012 Oxford English graduate conference.  More on that in due course (really excited to be involved, though!)

And, finally, today I stood for and was elected to the position of Library Representative for the English graduate students at Oxford (the committee has a very unfortunate acronmy - EGO).  I'm really looking forward to putting to use the skills and knowledge I gained working at the library at the U of S this past year in this liaison role.

As for coming events, I've got a place at a talk A.S. Byatt is giving in November (hosted by the research centre for the Study of Childhood) and, that same day, Tim and I are going to hear psychology professor Steven Pinker talk about his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" at the Sheldonian Theatre.  What are the odds two super cool authors would be speaking in town on the same day?  This would, unfortunately, never happen in Saskatoon.  Also, I think I'm heading up to London that following weekend for a one-day Bronte conference.  I shall be busy, busy, busy.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Freshers'/Noughth Week

Well, Michaelmas Term officially started on Sunday.  We went to Portsmouth for the afternoon and had a lovely time.  Pictures to follow.  So far, this term, I've gotten a fair bit of reading done, including a novelette Charlotte wrote when she was 18 called "The Spell" and its much better than what she was writing at 13 or 14, let me tell you that.  However, that's not much of a surprise.  When I think of how my own writing improved between 13 and 18...

So, last week was 0th Week, as in, the first week before term starts.  I believe undergradutes need to write practice exams in 0th Week, so it's not exactly part of the vacation.  For new students, it involves many, many orientations (or inductions, as they seem to call them here) and social events.  I will try to recap.

Last Sunday, I started meeting some of my fellow graduate students at Mansfield College at a Welcome Tea.  There was also a welcome tea at our university housing complex, so we finally got to meet some of the neighbours.  Then it was back to Mansfield in the evening for a drinks night in the MCR (Middle Commmon Room, or graduate common room), which is quite lovely.  It's two rooms (with red and green walls respectively) in the upper tower room at the college.  I got to meet yet more people, which was lovely.

Next day, I had to sign the college register and hand over my passport for scanning, as per visa regulations.  I was also given the gigantic Examination Regulations books printed each year by the OUP which outlines everything official about every course.  Yikes.  There was also a college induction in the Mansfield Chapel, which is lovely by the way.  Instead of saints, it has carvings of prominent dissenters (Mansfield was the first college at Oxford non Church of England people could attend, by the bye).  Between events, I visited the lovely, bright and airy Upper Reading Room at the Old Bodleian Library for the first time.  I'm sure I will become quite well-acquainted with that venerable reading room before long.

Tuesday.  There was a graduate student induction from the English Faculty in the morning, which had really useful session on library and IT training opportunitites.  I also found out that about 70% of English doctoral students pass the official transfer for DPhil (aka PhD) on their first try (technically I'm in a probationary period for my first two terms here).  This is good to know.  In the evening, Mansfield had a graduate freshers' dinner, at which I got to meet my lovely college advisor and drink claret while everyone else at the tasty-looking meal in the dining hall (which is also a beautiful room - it all felt very Harry Potter!).  Then there was coffee and drinks in the MCR again and I got to meet more people and renew acquaintances made in the last couple days.

Wednesday, I signed up for Mansfield rowing...

Thursday, I had a second meeting with my supervisor.  I feel like I have a pretty good sense of the direction my work should be tending at this stage, which is really wonderful.  I also got to meet my English graduate student mentor, who knows people who live in Saskatoon - what are the odds?

On Friday, a friend from back home who is starting her DPhil in History at Wolfson and I went gown shopping.  We're both matriculating on Saturday - that is, formally becoming members of the university.  In order to do this, we must wear sub fusc, which means white collared shirt with velvet ribbon, black pants or skirt, black stockings, and black shoes, as well as mortarboard and the graduate gown.  Unlike the undergraduate gown, which only goes down the waist and frankly looks silly, the graduate gown goes down to the knee.  Gown-shopping felt very much like Harry Potter, again, going off to Madame Malkin's to be fitted for robes.  I'll tell you all about matriculation next week and perhaps provide photographic evidence.

Saturday was the rowing induction for Mansfielders (and apparently many other colleges - the Cherwell was crowded!).  I've decided I will continue on with rowing.  I quite like it, when I'm stroking correctly and at the same time as the others in the boat.  It's very disappointing to make a wrong move, however, because it is glaringly obvious to yourself and everyone else in the boat.  This week, I need to pass a swim test in order to become part of the team.  There was also a cocktail night at the Mansfield MCR that evening, plus a Junior Common Room (undergraduate) "bop" (a dance party, usually with a dress-up theme).  The theme this time was the London Underground, which proved interesting in practice.

And then Sunday, we went to Portsmouth, as mentioned above.  Again, more later, with pictures.  We took lots.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Fruits of Revision

Before we moved, I finally finished going through the entire manuscript of my work in progress and doing a complete revision.  I've never been a good reviser, though I trust I'm getting better with age.

Once here and mostly settled, I finished typing up that new draft and then went through the end product, making notes, correcting typos, and outlining, chapter by chapter, to see if there were any structural problems.  And all in all, I'm really pleased with what the second draft (that took about four years to complete - ouch!).  I made some major changes in the middle - changed up characters, delved further into backstory, restructured three chapters - and they've worked a great improvement on the novel as a whole.  Of course, now all the new material needs a layer of polish, which is partly what Draft #3, which I began two days ago, will hopefully accomplish.

But I was also really pleased to see that chapters where I thought I'd made very few changes - pruning here, making description a bit more original there - were actually much stronger than they had been before.

All those small changes (and big ones), I think, have added up to a much stronger book, one that I really enjoyed reading again.  So, once Draft #3 is done (and I do have a couple ideas for some more substantive changes there too), perhaps I will have to begin researching literary agents and such.  I guess we'll see.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Reviewing Policy:

Because I’ve never reviewed a book on here before (or elsewhere, for that matter), I thought I’d put up a little modus operandi with this review to explain how I plan on going about it.  I’ll be reviewing primarily what I regularly read for fun, namely YA fantasy, a smattering of adult fantasy, and contemporary literary fiction, usually historical.  I will of course comment on the classics in all genres that I happen to be reading, as well.

I likely won’t be posting negative reviews on this blog, because I don’t know if I want my antipathy towards Book X to be public knowledge.  However, I also don’t want to limit myself, so we’ll see how this plays out.

Also, I’ll only be reviewing books as I have the time and inclination.  I also have two other small commitments at the moment: a doctoral dissertation and a novel.  :)

UK Edition
In this transatlantic tale, two late-Victorian magicians pledge to set their students, Celia and Marco, against each other in a magical competition testing skill, invention, and sheer endurance.  A black and white circus, only open at  night, becomes the staging ground for a contest that takes almost twenty years to play out.  Marco and Celia of course fall in love, complicating their duel, whose stakes they don’t yet fully understand, and endangering Le Cirque des Rêves, which becomes more important than either the competitors or the competition that created it.

Morgenstern’s rich, sensory prose creates a magical atmosphere from the first words of the novel.  The author also does an excellent job of illustrating her mysterious, monochrome circus.  We see many characters – magicians, performers, patrons – experiencing the delights of the Night Circus: its sudden appearance and disappearance, acrobats who perform without a safety net, an ice garden.  Interspersed throughout the novel are second-person vignettes, which allow the reader to experience the circus for him or herself.

North American Edition
Morgenstern also makes excellent use of shifts in time, sometimes showing, consecutively, several characters’ experiences of a crucial event, sometimes jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the consequences of an incident or to dramatize an effect’s cause.  These time shifts are especially effective in the lead-up to the novel’s close.  This element reminded me, favourably, of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, also featuring dueling Victorian magicians.

Celia and Marco’s characters are complicated and well-drawn, especially as they come to discover that they are pawns in a larger contest.   The reader sees their sporting courtship through their contributions to the circus for years before they meet each other.  When they finally do meet, they fall in love hard and fast, but this is believable and has human and magical consequences, which Morgenstern follows through to their inevitable conclusion.  Supporting characters, such as the Murray twins (born on opening night), Bailey, a patron, and Herr Thiessen, the circus’s clock-maker, are also endearing.

Now, gripes, of which there are happily few.  First, though the prose is generally spot on, concise, and image-rich, it sometimes falters, slipping into repetition or weakened by unnecessary modifiers.  This is a shame, because the writing is otherwise so strong.  Second, there are elements which struck me as just too precious, such as the Murray twin’s circus act: acrobatic kittens.  Now, I love cats, but I just can’t see a cat being willing to tumble through the air purely for its master’s satisfaction, magic circus or no.  This felt a bit too cute for my sensibility, though perhaps it tickles everyone else’s.

When I picked this book up, I wanted it to be a virtuoso performance of a first novel, like Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (incidentally, also about 19th-century dueling magicians), solid, without a word out of place.  It wasn’t quite that.  Perhaps my expectations were unfortunately high, having taken in some of the pre-publication hype.  All else aside, this is a great book, whose perfectly-pitched ending made me choke up.  The Night Circus is a well-written, well-constructed novel about the power of dreams, imagination, community, and love that will appeal to readers of YA and literary fantasy.

Two addenda:

Book design: The UK edition is a joy to behold.  It has a lovely black and white cover with just a splash of red (the significance of which is explained inside).  Under the dust-jacket is a lovely red hardcover with a gold clock on the front.  The end papers feature black, white, and red top hats and bowlers (again, also significant).  There’s also a helpful ribbon to mark one’s place.  This was very helpful, as I have not yet acquired any bookmarks here.

YA crossover appeal:  This title could definitely succeed as a YA and could have been published as such, I believe.  Adult and young adult characters share the stage throughout the novel.  The Night Circus contains no more sexuality than one would might find in a YA directed toward older teens.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

North American cover
Again, it isn't Wednesday.  Also, there won't be much of a wait involved, because I've been a bit slow off the mark to blog about this particular release.  It comes out in North America and the UK on September 27th, which is this coming Tuesday.

Here is a book I've been looking forward to since, er, probably last summer, when the author, Laini Taylor, announced on her blog that her next book had been sold at auction and had an American publisher.  The reason I was so excited was that I had read her previous, National Book Award-winning collection of two short stories and one novella, Lips Touch: Three Times.  The first story is a modern retelling of Christina Rosett's "Goblin Market", the second is set in British Raj India and involves bargaining over souls with demons and a voice that can kill, and the third is a novella involving dual identity, strange demon-like creatues, and a long-running love affair.  The prose is rich and the imagery fantastic.  I gobbled that book up in about two nights, even though I'm sure I should have been working on my Master's thesis.  So, please go read Lips Touch if you like YA fantasy.  I'm sure you won't regret it.

UK cover
There are two other reasons I'm really looking forward to this novel.  First, it centres around a myterious teenaged girl named Karou, with naturally (kind of) blue hair and tattoos who is an art student in Prague.  Her only family are a group of chimerae and she is sent on missions to collect teeth, which are then traded for wishes.  This books also has the wonderful prefatory line: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.  It did not end well..."  How much better could this be?

The second reason I'm looking forward to this book is that the publisher has offered up the first few chapters as a free preview online (you can find the first five chapters in the widget on the author's blog).  Great dialogue, fun characters, mystery.  The first 50 pages have totally hooked me.

You can read a glowing review of the novel in the Los Angeles Times here.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Picture Post: First Week (Or So) in Oxford

I've finally gotten my act together and picked out some representative photos from our first week and a bit in Oxford.


River Cherwell from Marston Ferry Street

Lilypads at the Oxford Botanic Gardens (Oxford students get in for free!)

Small Venus Flytraps in the Insectivorous Plants hothouse.

The canal

And from our day trip to Bath:

The Gothic, fan-vaulted ceiling of Bath Abbey
More to come!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

One Week

We've been in Oxford for a week now and have had a chance to mostly settle in.  The details of my mental map of the city are starting to fill in and we have enough housewares now that we can get makes meals with relative ease.

We both have bikes now (hybrids - mountain bikes don't seem nearly as popular here); mine is fitted with a rear basket, the better to grocery shop with.  I'm looking forward to being able to get down to central Oxford in 10 minutes or so.

Here's quick recap of the more interesting things we've done in the last week (I'll try to provide pictures soon, I promise!).  We've been to my college (Mansfield) and seen the gorgeous library (but not the college cat...yet), the Botanic Gardens, the Ashmolean, Blackwell's (oh, Blackwell's), the University Parks.  We've been walking by the Cherwell and the canal. 

And yesterday, we did a quick day trip out to Bath on the train.  We did the usual Bath things: the baths, the Abbey, the Circus and Royal Crescent.  We got into No. 1, Royal Crescent, which is done up to look like a proper Georgian House.  It was lovely.  It also had an exhibition of the first editions of Jane Austen's six novels, which I drooled over.  We wanted to go to the Herschel Museum, but discovered, to Tim's great dismay, that it isn't open on Wednesdays.  Alas.  (William Herschel discovered Uranus in the 1780s but originally named it after George III.  Just think, the solar system could go: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, George, Pluto.  Weird.)

Also, I had my first, informal meeting with my supervisor today.  I've decided I'd better get cracking on the intensive reading I've got planned for myself!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

In Oxford

Well, we finally have an internet connection in Oxford.

We arrived in London on Tuesday, miraculously having gotten about a night's worth of sleep on the plane.  (The transatlantic flight is so much less trying if you don't have to be conscious for most of it!)  We had enough gumption to take quick spins through the Victorian sections of the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, as well as the nearest Waterstones, where I was able to buy Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (on sale!).  I'm about 90 pages in and absolutely loving it so far.  It reminds me a bit of The Prestige (the film, haven't read the book yet), as it is fin-de-siecle, transatlantic, and features duelling magicians.  It's wonderfully written and has a really palpable, magical sense of atmosphere.  If I have my wits about me, perhaps I'll write a review when I'm finished with it.

We arrived in Oxford yesterday, and perhaps would not have gotten into our flat in Summertown if the caretaker hadn't decided to come in on his day off.  Thank goodness he did!  We are slowly getting to know the neighbourhood and central Oxford and picking up necessities as we are able.  Today we bought a microwave, which makes me so, so happy.  Yesterday, the only thing I had to cook with was a single, solitary pot.

Tomorrow, my goal is to start thinking about getting bikes and to finally get a set of dishes.  We'll see how that works out.

Today, we went up to my college (Mansfield), which really is a very short walk from the Bodleian (and Blackwell's...), and took a look around.  The porter signed me out a key to the library, so I finally got to see inside.  It's beautiful.  It has two storeys and a high, painted ceiling and dark wood.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.  We also went up the tower to the MCR (Middle Common Room, or grad student common room).  Much nicer than the one at the U of S (I think), with red walls and comfortable-looking chairs.

Here is our bookshelf.  Just as when we first moved in together, Tim and I unpacked and arranged our books first thing.  Also, we've added some new ones to our collection, as we stopped in at Blackwell's today and took advantage of their 3 for 2 deal.  :)

Monday, 12 September 2011

Countdown: Leaving Today!

Well, frankly, I'm getting pretty excited.  We will be in London approximately in approximately 16.5 hours.  I've got my airplane books packed and ready to go.
North American cover

  1. Dreamhunter, by Elizabeth Knox (published as The Rainbow Palace in the UK).  I finished this book just before I went to England for the first time with my parents, three years ago.  I read the sequel, Dreamquake, while in Britain and finished the book in a massive book-reading spree lasting seven hours (ending at 5:00 am), even though I should have been getting a good night's sleep ahead of a day of touring around London.  Brain-twisting book crack, that's what this series is.  (It's set an an alternate New Zealand in the early 20th century and follows a family of Dreamhunters, who can go into a mysterious desert realm called "The Place" and bring back dreams to broadcast and sell and the corrupt government who tries to "regulate" the industry and people's lives.)
  2. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.  This is the only Sarah Waters book I haven't read yet and probably her most well-known.  It follows a pickpocket who is sent to pose a maid to a young woman as part of a plot to ruin her and steal her inheritance.  But things don't quite go as expected.  It apparently riffs off of Victorian sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which I read last year and loved, so I'm really looking forward to this.  Waters' other novels - Tipping the Velvet (Victorian music hall-lesbian coming of age), Affinity (Victorian women's prison mixed spiritualism crossed with a mystery), The Night Watch (reverse chronology-women on the home front-World War II), and The Little Stranger (post-WWII country house ghost story with social criticism) - were all fantastic in different ways.
  3. Rick Steves' Great Britain 2009, which I just stole from my parents this morning.  Steves is absolutely my favourite travel guide writer and I'm looking forward to poring over the maps and coming up with grand travel plans for the coming weeks, months, and years.
For the record, Tim's taking an omnibus edition of the first four Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, for his airplane reading.

    Sunday, 11 September 2011

    Countdown: 1 Day!

    Well, aside from toiletries, our bags are packed and ready to go and seem to fall below the weight limits specified by Air Canada.

    All of us had a lovely barbecque over at Tim's parents' place.  Everything seems very strange now.  I still can't really believe we're going tomorrow - and not coming back until next summer.

    Not much more to say for now.  Will likely blog tomorrow, possibly en route.

    Countdown: 2 Days

    Just got back from an absolutely lovely farewell evening with friends at our favourite lounge.  Perhaps had too much to drink.  Tim is still out socializing, but I had to come back for some much needed sleep.

    Also, we managed to almost destroy our little 1993 Corsica (named Napoleon) yesterday.  I had noticed the "Low Oil Level" indicator light on my way home from an outing and before taking the car out again, Tim checked the oil and noticed it was very, very low so we drove it over to Tim's parents', because his dad and brother are both very capable of topping up oil, accompanied by strange engine noises and smells, and being aware that the engine temperature in the red zone for much of the trip (yikes!).  Turns out the heating core has busted and will be a bit interesting to fix.  If we had driven our car much longer, we probably would have blown the engine.

    Anyway, just we can get a good price when Tim's dad sells the car.  So, we are indeed carless, but seeing as we only have one full day left here, I think we'll be just fine.  We always wondered if our old car would die  before we left and it looks like the answer is: almost.

    Thursday, 8 September 2011

    Waiting on ... Thursday? The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

    North American cover
    I don't have much patience for blogging traditions (also I clearly didn't pay enough attention to the date yesterday and I don't want to wait until next Wednesday...), so I'm going to tell you about a book I am anticipating today.

    Lots of far more accomplished bloggers do "Waiting on Wednesday"s, but I thought I'd do one now and then so that you too can slaver over books that look fabulous but unfortunately haven't been released yet.

    A lot of people have blogged about this first book, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, but it looks awesome and I think it will be one of the first books I buy at Blackwell's in Broad Street when we get to Oxford, in part because we arrive in Oxford on the 14th and the book comes out on the 15th.  Perfect timing!

    Here is the publisher's blurb:
    The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

    But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

    True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

    UK cover
    Doesn't that sound marvellously delicious?  And it's getting starred reviews all over the place (even from Kirkus, which is especially notable).  Also, author blurbs, including Audrey Niffenegger and Tea Obrecht, the recent - and very young - debut novelist and winner of this year's Orange Prize for The Tiger's Wife (another book I'd like to read).

    The Wall Street Journal did a story on Erin Morgenstern in which it claimed that The Night Circus could be the publishing world's next Harry Potter (which everyone knows is an easy descriptor for a hoped-for publishing phenomenon, but is an incredibly unlikely prospect).  It also outlined the crazy amounts of publicity the book has been getting: the film rights have been sold to Summit, which did the Twilight movies and the production company is directly marketing the book to those fans; there are going to be midnight lauches with circus performers in major cities.  It all seems a little over the top, since, really, this author is still an unknown quantity.  I suppose this may make good business sense, but I'd far rather just read the book and see.

    Other interesting reading:
    • A very recent interview of Erin Morgenstern with The Guardian's Alison Flood.
    • Erin Morgenstern's quite interesting blog, complete with pictures of cats!
    I am thoroughly looking forward to picking this book up on the 15th!

    P.S.  One of the chief reasons this book with likely not be the next Harry Potter is that, despite its subject matter, it is not in fact a YA novel.  It is an adult title and will be shelved with adult books.  For the sake of marketing, which is what the YA label often comes down to these days, its almost surprising that a title with such cross-over potential (see direct marketing to Twilight fans) wasn't published as a YA, which would allow it to be shelved in both locations, either in two different editions, or not.  You can really push the YA genre today, even if the book had supposedly "adult" content.  Or, perhaps it won't matter, and teens will gobble it up just as they do other adult market titles.  Interesting, in any case, as a book and a publishing phenomenon.

    (The other reason this book probably won't be Harry Potter is that it is a stand-alone title.  I find this slightly refreshing.)