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Category Archives: The Reading Life

Why I’ve Never Read Harry Potter and the Deathly Stone of Secrets

For some reason, many of my friends seem to believe that I’ve read all the Harry Potter books. For the most part I play along, not wanting to get into any confrontational situations. I don’t want to step on my friends dainty toes and I don’t want them stomping all over mine.

Kids these days…. Credit: baloo-baloosnon-politicalcartoonblog.blogspot.com

In truth, I once tried to read the first book, but didn’t get to far. I must have been around ten years old. I’d seen the first (and possibly the second?) movie, but for some reason I had assumed that the book would be way too smart, and boyish and difficult for me to handle. Then one day, my  younger brother’s (probably unread) copy was lying around, so I picked up and started reading. I was actually pretty impressed. It wasn’t above my reading level. And I actually liked it.

But then an unforeseen predicament arose. I got bored. Reading it felt too easy. I’m not really sure what this means, or what it meant to ten-year-old me, but I distinctly remember feeling unchallenged and putting it down and never picking it up again. I don’t even know where this copy is to date. My family does not (and has never) owned any of the other Harry Potter books. My siblings and I are perhaps the only products of our generation, living in North America, who have not read this cultural phenomenon of a series.

I am very entertained by the fact that, because I’m ‘a reader’ and a future English major, my peers assume I commiserate in their love and admiration for Harry Potter. I think that our interpretation of these facts about me are a little off base. The way see it, the facts that I’m ‘a reader’ and a future English major are why I have still snobbishly avoided reading this series. I also I have better books to spend quality time with.

Along the same lines is this little scenario: Knowing that I read, a girl in my gap year program asked me if I’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey. She was literally aghast when I told her I hadn’t and made a general inquisition to those in the lunchroom, beginning with the question, “Okay, who here’s a reader”.

Really, this was the cutest thing I’ve ever witnessed. I’m sorry — very, very sorry — but the term ‘books’ is not synonymous with the term ‘literature’. The fact that someone reads a lot means nothing in my highly pretentious mind. And to me, Harry Potter is not literature. (Although, I will be the first to admit that Anne of Green Gables, i.e. my most favouritest book in the world, is not really literature either. But that’s entirely different. Obviously.)

Anyways, going back to “HP”, I find it very entertaining to think about how far back my snobbery goes. Even as a little kid I was pretentious with regards to reading material. Sorry, the little hipster in me seemed to say, this is just too mainstream. This was before I was conditioned to be pretentious and judgmental in order to feel good about myself and my life-choices. This was before I even started reading real literature — what already was I reading back then? Junie B. Jones? Little House on the Prairie? And yet, I closed Harry Potter and the Something or Other a few pages in, already thinking that it was just not good enough for me.

Of course, it’s not like I’ve ever read the books, so I can’t truly comment on this without coming off and kind of ignorant — and seeming ignorant is something I try to avoid when possible. Which is why I’m choosing this forum to make my somewhat pointless point. Real life conversations about such things freak me out. I don’t know how to think on the spot and then make my mouth say the things it should. I’m terribly afraid to offend people and spit all over their personal preferences and tastes when we’re face to face. And they tend to respond to my points, because apparently that’s how conversations work.

Also, I try not to ruin my friends’ illusions about my commiseration in their fandom. And I’m pretty good at playing along. I think my brother and I had a marathon of all the movies a few years ago (although I really can’t recall how the series ends, maybe I didn’t make it to the end) so I do know enough to keep up. One of my good friends even sends me Mean Girls/Harry Potter mash-ups on a regular basis, knowing how much I love the former and probably assuming I feel the same about the latter.

So, to be very open with you, this post is in response to situations I keep finding myself in. My friends (and teachers and teachers’ children) here keep finding out that I’ve never read these darned books and they are always being so shocked about it. So this is my crummy rebuttal that the people to whom this response is directed probably won’t even get. But those of you on my side will get it. And I much prefer preaching to the choir over preaching to the ignorant masses anyways.

Eating Up “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is just a really long, complicated poem. By which I mean, I didn’t completely understand it, but it sounded really nice.

It follows six friends through their lives, from childhood until death, and is narrated by each of them in turn, in strange, trance-like streams of subconsciousness. These streams of sub-consciousness are told entirely using direct dialogue that does not seem as though it is actually being spoken. Breaking up chunks of this ‘dialogue’ are chunks of narration that describe the scenery, the waves and the sun on its journey through the sky, which mirrors our heroes’ and heroines’ journeys through life.

The words and sentences ebb and flow together like the streams of consciousness that Woolf alters between. But where waves can be messy, her tight prose weaved seamlessly together like the cotton threads in a gauzy, flowing scarf.

But, to write up another comparison, my experience with the book was kind of the opposite of how one views a pointillist painting. From far away, seeing it as a whole, it becomes a blur of metaphors and symbols that I can’t grasp. But up close, in one little sentence at the top of a page, a phrase a few paragraphs down, an excerpt later on, I bit into delicious morsels of truth.

Obviously there was a whole feast of truths and ideas, covered in brilliance sauce. But, for a little not-yet-an-English-major like me, the morsels were all I could get at. All I could appreciate. They were sweet champagne, bubbling over in seductive flutes, that anyone might sip. The rest was a deep red wine with notes of this and that, which my inexperienced palate couldn’t yet detect.

But I’m learning that that’s okay. I’m young, I don’t have to know and understand and appreciate every nuance in every piece of literature I read. I can take and enjoy my morsels and come back for a second plate of more substantial dishes later. Because the sumptuous spreads laid out in books never spoil. And you can come back later for seconds and thirds and even fourths. And what you gain from this kind of face-stuffing goes to your brain not your hips.

Thoughts on Time

In the style of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Kind of.

Times plods on. It rushes, it streams onwards. An era, a year, a day that’s passed will never be again. Ever. Except for its shadowy vision that exists in the minds of its survivors, its victors. When they pass, when their memories are lost, it’s gone. Except for in the words that have attempted to capture it. But even it cannot fully live in those words as it lived in its time.

It is 6:03 pm on Tuesday March 5, 2013. It will never be this date and time again. Even as I write this, that moment disappears. Now it’s 6:05. And the hands of my watch move along, even as my fingers caress this keyboard. They’ll look the same in a mere twelve hours, but a different number will occupy the circle where the date resides. Everything — the rotation of the earth, the hue of the sky, my level of consciousness — will be changed. Except fo the position of the minute- and hour-hands on my dainty rose gold watch.

I will never have this moment in my head and hands and lungs again. There. It is gone. It has passed on to be hazed in the land of memory. It is replaced by a new moment, which will pass on in the next moment’s birth.

Every minute, every second a piece of my youth is buried without a eulogy. I am also reborn, each moment, older and wiser or younger and acting foolish. Just for the moment. And each moment is a choice. Often nothing changes between moments. They are fluid. They pass without informing me. But still, a piece of my life becomes the past, to make room for the present and future. If I learn from it, and release it, and let it.

And time slides on. It doesn’t notice this, any of this, because time cannot notice. It just slips and slides onwards, forwards, backwards. Into infinitude. Whatever that is.

And what about us. Me and you. Do we notice? We can, because we are not time. How do we spend these moments that we’ll never live through again? We choose how to spend each moment. And even when we do not choose, that is a choice. It is 6:28. 6:29. And now it’s dinnertime.

A Book- and Blog-iversary

On January 28th, 1813 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s second novel, was published. On January 29, 2012, Welcome to My Shiny New Blog, the first post here on A Solitary Ramble, was published.

Coincidence? Yes. Yes it was. However, I don’t believe in coincidences, and I’m sure that this happened to happen for a reason. Probably so that I could conveniently celebrate P&P’s 200th book-iversary and my first blog-iversary in single post.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.com

Time to pop out the tea! Dust off the teacups! And throw ourselves another tea party? Well, maybe not. Mostly because I’m home for a few days. Which is an excellent thing, except for the fact that we don’t have fancy china here. And I’ve been so busy seeing friends and family and doing homey stuff that I kind of TOTALLY MISSED BOTH OF THESE -VERSARIES AND THIS POST IS SEVERAL DAYS LATEThere. Okay. It is so relieving to have gotten that out. I hope you can forgive me for being so remiss.

It’s actually quite fitting to have both of these dates so close on the calendar and bound eternally to one another in this post. I mostly started this blog to drool over Mr. Darcy in a public manner. I guess that didn’t happen much… Except for here. Oh, and here. And probably a little bit here.

My blog’s name, in fact, is lifted straight from a scene in Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth’s sister Lydia and her new husband, Mr. Wickham are paying a visit to the Bennets. Elizabeth is sitting outside, reading a letter from her aunt (which explains the exact conditions under which Lydia’s wedding came to be), when Mr. Wickham intrudes on her reverie. “I am afraid I interrupt your solitary ramble,” he says, as he joins her.

Aside from the Austenticity of the phrase, I thought it was quite fitting for my brand new blog. It represents me, because (like Lizzy who will walk three miles in the mud, getting her petticoats six inches deep in mud) I’m rather fond of taking walks through the countryside in solitude. Of course, by the countryside I mean the side-walked, suburban streets. And, unlike Lizzy’s, my petticoats aren’t quite long enough to reach the ground.

Also, I figured that these posts would mostly be solitary rambles — sitting by myself at the keyboard, ranting and raving to myself.

Joking aside (just kidding, I don’t know how to shove joking to the side) I think we should take a moment to admire and love Miss Elizabeth Bennet as much as Mr. Darcy does. Because, really, the girl’s amazing. And I don’t think we expend enough energy on adoring her.

Besides inspiring me to get off the couch and get some eye-brightening exercise (if you catch my reference), she literally changed who I am as a person. In far too many ways for me to count.

Credit: allystruth.tumblr.com

From what I hazily recall of the dark ages before Lizzy and I met, I used to be really into following the rules (at or at least appearing to do so). I used to literally tremble in the face of authority (mostly in the form of school principals). Thanks to Lizzy, I managed to stand up to my high school principal last year — in a witty, impertinent manner, no less — on an important matter. And then I stormed out of the man’s office in a huff. Kind of like that time Lizzy stood up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

I’m not really sure that this was quite what Jane wanted me to get out of her sparkling novel.

And while Lady C had no real power over Lizzy and her choices, this principal’s “yes” had the power to change my entire year last year (and, you know, probably the entire course of my life, if we’re going to be melodramatic about it).

Besides, I knew I’d be getting a big, fat, ugly NO from said principal anyways — this was not our first meeting on the matter — so I figured I might as well finish the ordeal with a clang.

Among other things, Lizzy has turned me into quite the impertinent  sharp-tongued young lady. (“No, she has not. It was ONE time,” the voice of reason in my head wants you to know.) And I love her for it.

“I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know,” wrote Miss Austen of her heroine one day.

I couldn’t agree more. 

A Birthday Party for Miss Austen

If you aren’t already aware that Jane Austen was born two-hundred-and-thirty-seven years ago today, you’re obviously not as devout an Austen Addict as I am. Ordinarily I’d suggest that if this is the case you can just leave my blog, right now, but today I’m feeling generous — it is a day of celebration after all — and I realize that few people can possibly be as obsessed as I am.

I don’t know about THE world, but Jane certainly changed MY world. And clearly other people’s worlds as well. When I met new people at school this year, Jane often found her way into our conversation at some one point or another. My new acquaintance would then either nod in slight recognition of the somewhat ubiquitous name, or begin gushing about how absolutely delightful Pride and Prejudice is. The latter is what happened with one of my teachers and her daughters when we met a few months ago.

And so, in honour of this auspicious day, these lovely ladies baked a cake and we all got dressed up and had a tea party this afternoon. And let me say, I have never attended such a lovely tea party in all my life. Actually, compared with our afternoon tea, I don’t think anything I’ve ever attended or hosted could even be considered a tea party.

They took out their fancy china for the occasion and we drank from the dainty floral tea cups with our pinky fingers in the air. We put on classical music. We lit candles. We placed flowers on the table.

Tea Time!

We all dressed up — though none of us really got the period quite right. There were shawls and big, floppy hats that were more to the stylings of Anne Shirley than Elizabeth Bennet and we had a southern belle join us in a long, poufy gown. I attempted an empire waist look, placing a thin belt high on my waistline over a purple dress. Nonetheless, we all looked charming in our outfits of choice.

And then there was the food. Chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar. Lemon pie. Cucumber sandwiches. And you can’t forget the tea. And the china sugar bowl. My family, for some reason or another, doesn’t have good china or sugar bowls or fancy tea sets, so that their family has such things, and that we used them, was very exciting for me.

The Food

The Food

And then we looked at my pictures from my pilgrimages to England where I visited Miss Austen’s house in Chawton and the filming locations for Pemberley used in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. We had a marvellous afternoon. And then, to finish off our day we went to Anthropologie, were I got myself a present in honour of Jane’s birthday. The belt I bought was, after all, called the Pierced Floral Corset Belt so I think it was quite fitting.

Thank you Jane, for writing some of the greatest novels ever. You’ve played a huge role in shaping who I am over the past few years since we met when I was fifteen. You’re the reason I started reading Literature. You’re partly responsible for my decision to major in English when I get to university next year. You inspired me to begin writing.You inspired two incredible, bonding-filled trips to England with my daddy. Your novels have taught me so much about life, myself and those around me. And you gave me a great opportunity to have a really fun tea party today in your honour. Happy birthday, Jane. And thanks for everything.

Did you do anything special to celebrate Jane’s birthday? Have you ever? Do share!

Some other posts wherein I gush about Jane and her novels:

My Favourite Books

P&P&ME

Fictitious Crushes

Happy Birth(and Death)day to The Bard (wherein I discuss my visit to Miss Austen’s former home in England)

My Life in Books

The Jane Austen Book Club

For the Love of Jane 

“He Have His Goodness Now”

The other day I went to see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible put on by Soulpepper in Toronto’s Distillery District. It was phenomenal, incredible, stupendous. The sets were perfect in that they were subtle and fitting, the costumes seemed just right and the acting was amazing. There isn’t much more than that to say. When something is subpar, I can wax on forever about its flaws, but when I truly enjoy something, I find it hard to say anything. Not, I imagine, because there isn’t anything to be said, but because it just doesn’t seem to need saying. When something is done well, that generally appears seamless; you don’t sit pondering what makes it so good, you just take it for granted and become engrossed. Which is probably why it’s easier to criticize than to compliment. When something is done well, it is less noticeable, it’s simply as it should be; however, when it is done poorly, that’s what sticks out. This is probably why we’re quicker to notice (and punish) children when they misbehave, than to notice (and reward) children who behave properly.

But, life is more complicated than just good and bad, approval and disapproval. Not everything is all good and must be put on a pedestal, or all bad and to be put to shame. At least according to The Crucible. If something (or someone) is completely good or completely bad, that’s boring. It doesn’t seem worth talking about. It’s the tension between good and bad and the capacity for good and bad that make life (and people) interesting.

So, overall, the play was incredible, but there was one flaw that stuck out for me. I really didn’t like Abigail Williams. I understand that the character herself is not a likable person — we’re not supposed to like her. But I can’t figure out if I disliked her because the actress did such a good job playing her and I didn’t like her because I wasn’t supposed to or if it was because she really didn’t do a good job and that bothered me. I’m inclined to think the latter.

Abigail isn’t a nice person. She had an affair with John Proctor before the play began, and while he’s seen that it was wrong and put an end to it, she refuses to move on. She’s jealous of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, and wants her dead, with hopes of taking her place. She uses the witch trials as an opportunity to have Elizabeth accused and hanged for her own corrupt, selfish purposes. She’s a controlling, manipulative liar who gains power through the messed up system created by the trials and leads all the other (previously powerless) teenage girls in accusing many innocent people of “consorting with the devil”. The thing about her, though, is that she’s a really awful character who I just love to hate. She’s deliciously bad and has few to no redeeming qualities.

But I didn’t really get that from the girl who played her. She didn’t really seem so conniving and cruel and malicious. She was just kind of annoying. And her affected innocence didn’t feel enough like affectation. Maybe she didn’t do such a bad job. Maybe the actress or the director had a different interpretation of Abigail’s character than I did. But, because the rest of the play was so good, this one flaw was not only more noticeable, but it also bothered me more and made more of an impact.

Abigail Williams annoyingly portrayed by Hannah Miller.
Photo credit: Soulpepper.ca

The opposite applies as well, goodness has more value when it’s put next to badness. This is illustrated with John Proctor’s character. The play ends with *spoiler alert* his hanging. He chooses to be hanged rather than sign his name to lies and perpetuate the brutal witch trials, which he knows to be senseless, unjust and unfounded in real factual evidence. If he was just a perfect person, if he were a noble, just, well-behaved man from the start of the play, his self-sacrifice in the end wouldn’t be all that spectacular. What else would he do? Rebecca Nurse, an extremely calm, sensible, moral character shares the same fate. But no one really notices. It’s expected of her.

What’s so outstanding about Proctor is that he isn’t perfect from the start but still does the right thing in the end. He’s a good person, but he’s done wrong. He has an incredible reputation, and is respected in his community (which is why his final decision to die honourably rather than live because of a self-preserving falsehood actually matters and helps his society). But seven months before the play even began, he had that affair with Abigail. As far as he’s concerned, that one mistake makes him a terrible person and it was an error in judgment from which he can never recover. He does the right thing in the end, but literally up until the moment that he does, he isn’t sure if he’s going to — partly because he feels that since he’s already done one wrong thing, there’s no point in losing his life to do the right thing. But then he realizes that goodness and badness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He sees that he does have some goodness in him and he chooses to do the right thing, because having done wrong previously is no excuse to do wrong again.

Patricia Fagan and Stuart Hughes as Elizabeth and John Proctor

The thing that makes him heroic, is that he has done bad but changes and does something good. That’s why he matters. That’s why he’s interesting. That’s why we love him. When something is all good or all bad, it’s boring — or at least boring to talk about. There isn’t necessarily much to say about a play that’s done perfectly or a man who behaves perfectly. But what really sticks out — whether in a bad way or in a good way — is when a play that’s superb has a flaw or when a not so ideal person does something truly noble. Because it’s the inconsistencies in life that are interesting and that really get people talking.

Of course, I’d rather a play that’s executed perfectly or a person who’s always good, but life’s more complicated than that and there’s good and bad in everything. And “there is nothing,” as Hamlet says (in Hamlet, act 2, scene II) “either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. So maybe what I’m really getting at with this, is what do you focus on? The awesomeness of the rest of the play or the less-than-awesomeness of how Abigail was portrayed? The fact that John Proctor cheated on his wife or that fact that he was able to repent, move past that and do good in the end?

I’d say, learn from Proctor and choose goodness. There’s badness in each of us and there’s badness in the world around us. But maybe we shouldn’t focus on that. Maybe we should focus on the good and — despite our own or other people’s bad choices — try to do the right thing.

What Colour Best Defines Me as a Person and Other Dilemmas

I have trouble going to the mall — or really partaking in any shopping related activity — without thinking about Brave New World, Fight Club or both. Since reading/viewing these works, I’ve been acutely aware of our consumerist culture and what a bad thing it is for our humanity and our individuality. This, in itself, isn’t so awful. But, I’ll be brutally honest with you, I’m very materialistic. Which creates quite the internal conflict when paired with my immensely introspective nature and my awareness that my materialism completely goes against all my morals and beliefs. 

Credit: cartoonstock.com

When I say I’m materialistic, I don’t mean in a I-like-a-good-pair-of-shoes kind of way — that is completely acceptable and normal behaviour.  I mean I’m materialistic and consumeristic the way consumerism is portrayed in Fight Club. You know how the narrator reflects that he would wonder about which Ikea dining set defined him as a person? Well, yesterday I was at the Apple store, on the verge of a panic attack. Why, you ask, was I on the  verge of a panic attack? Because I needed to buy a protective skin or case or something for my new MacBook and I couldn’t decide which colour best defined me as a person. Not which case — I had already decided to get the same one everyone else has — but which colour. Because that’s the kind of thing that concerns me. What colour best defines me as a human being. What colour best conveys my personality, my strengths and my vulnerabilities. 

Of course, then we could have a whole other conversation about how Apple plays into the whole advertising-consumerism-identity debate. Whenever we have one such discussion in class, iPhones and iPads and Macs (oh my!) always find their way into the conversation. One of my favourite points to rehash is that Apple’s ads and products (sometimes subtly, other times overtly) claim to sell you individuality. Buy an iPhone, there’s an App for whatever you need, so you can customize your phone and make it unique to you. But then, half the reason people are switching to iPhone now is because everyone else has one. Buy our product, so that you can be an individual — just like everybody else!

I may be making some valid points, but while I was making them I paused to check my iPhone. And, if that weren’t enough, I’m typing up these points on my shiny new MacBook. The real irony of it is how I came to my decision to switch to a Mac. Earlier this year, I had to give a presentation for my English class about how Brave New World is relevant to today’s society, including quotations from the book and examples from modern-day society. I chose to focus on consumerism, identity, individuality and conformity (which I put together into a brilliant thesis that outlined how interconnected they all are).

For my current examples, I obviously picked out an Apple ad — I wanted to find just the right one from their “I’m a Mac — I’m a PC” campaign. So I spent an evening watching them all on YouTube. While I did this, I was taking notes and making connections to the novel and figuring out what to say to my class about basing one’s identity on material possessions. In the end, I went with an iPhone commercial, because it fit my purposes better and related more clearly to my argument. And those ads, that I though so deeply about and “completely saw through” were what pushed me over the edge and made me realize that I really needed to make the switch to a Mac. Of course, when I finally got one, I had a panic attack because I didn’t know how to use it and I wanted to get it all personalized (and individualized) but that was just too overwhelming. I was also concerned that it was stealing my individuality one click at a time.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the fact that a laptop isn’t anything on its own. It’s a vessel, it’s a vehicle. It’s what you do with your laptop that counts, that makes you an individual. I use my laptop to blog. I use my laptop to write. I use my laptop to watch movies like You’ve Got Mail, Emma (the one with Gwyneth Paltrow) and Romeo and Juliet. And maybe that’s what makes me an individual, not the fact that I’m doing these things on a MacBook Pro and not that my fancy new Mac is covered in a hot pink case. 

At least that’s what I keep telling myself… To reconcile with the fact that maybe I shouldn’t have gone with hot pink — because really, that’s just not the type of person I want to portray myself as.

Do you define yourself based on arbitrary material things? What colour would you say defines you as a person (this is different than just your favourite colour. Obviously. There’s, like, an exact science to it — I’ll let you know when I figure out what that exact science is.) Are you a Mac or a PC? Do you think that reflects or affects your personality? Maybe that’s just me. It could be that I’m just crazy… And a little to susceptible to manipulative advertising campaigns (despite my ability to notice how manipulative they’re being).

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