Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Real Elizabeth?

 The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II marks a time in the history of the British Monarchy, which may never be repeated.  The fact that one monarch has spent (survived?) so many years on the throne, amidst enormous changes throughout the world, is a cause for wonder at both her and the monarchy’s adaptability.  Elizabeth came to the throne as a young woman in the shadow of  war and the enormous personality of Winston Churchill.  She has seen the Empire become a Commonwealth, the shrinking of Britain’s military influence, and great changes in the demographics of her subjects.  Personally, she has weathered similarly earth-shattering events that have changed the image of “the Royals.”  Through it all, however, the monarchy carries on, maybe due in great part to her.  A number of books have been written about this very private and reputed shy individual.  The latest, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, by Andrew Marr is as good as any.  Marr spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the book convincing the reader that Queen Elizabeth is a significant person, her life worthy of examination.  I found it tedious, since, for goodness sake, if I didn’t already agree, I wouldn’t be reading the book.  He covers the sweep of her long reign in chapters that capture certain eras, and he does an impeccable job of portraying the times, issues, challenges against which Elizabeth had to make decisions. Despite the book being historically well-researched, I came away feeling as if I had not learned much more about “the REAL Elizabeth.”  Maybe she can not be known outside of her safe, immediate circle.  I chose this picture of her as a young woman because of her joyous, infectious smile.  That is one hint to the “real” Elizabeth often repeated in Marr’s book: that her laughter is contagious, her smile electric.

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The House as Character

As evening approaches and house darkens with the approach of a summer thunderstorm, I am inspired to share with you a book I just finished, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  This book will scratch your spooky English gothic itch with its tale of an aristocratic family in decline, the rapid decay of their ancestral home, Hundreds Hall, and the paranormal goings-on that haunt them. The family doctor, Faraday, happens upon the last family members living in the Hall: mother, daughter, and son and heir, struggling to get by in their gentle poverty.  Faraday quickly becomes enamored of the family and the charm of the once grand estate.  As the story’s narrator, he is always on hand to calm a hysterical maid or offer a scientific explanation for the increasingly bizarre and dangerous events which plague the Ayres family.  The (spoiler alert!) mental undoing of the son can be logically explained by his war experiences, the apparent suicide of the mother from her grief over the loss of her child…but the strange fires, the mysterious writing on walls, the tapping and noises all contribute to a crescendo of fear and “nerves” on the part of the inhabitants, which could, maybe be explained as mass hysteria or delusion…or, perhaps, something else.   The ending is not satisfying for those of us who want an explanation, damn it! but instead leaves the reader to make his/her own conclusion.  But aside from the ghost story is another, which touches on class.  The narrator, Dr. Faraday, is keenly aware of his lowly position in the community and in the eyes of the elitist Ayres family.  Dr. Faraday, nonetheless, ingratiates himself with the family and becomes indispensable, eventually winning the daughter’s tacit affections and agreement to marry him.  The interesting twist is that Dr. Faraday is every bit as much  in love with Hundreds Hall as he is the squire’s daughter, and is aghast when he learns she may not want to live there.  The common man marrying the house as well as the Lord’s daughter brings to mind a much more well-known version of  this theme, as it played out in Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).  The narrator in that novel, also a man of common birth who observes and comments on the great family with whom he has become swept up with, eventually convinces the daughter, Julia Flyte, to leave her husband to marry him.  In one scene, he is horrified to learn that she wants to leave Brideshead and never return.  The house in both these novels is nearly a character in itself.  It certainly has a powerful draw for the outsider narrator, and an almost repulsive energy to the family which has grown up in it.  

Other novels have featured the great house almost as a character in and of itself in the novel.  The looming importance of the house is mentioned in the famous opening lines of Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), “Last night I dreamt I  went to Manderley again.”  Manderley becomes as much of a ghost as Rebecca as the novel unfolds.  In Gone With the Wind, Tara becomes a force which changes and shapes the fate of Scarlett. There are many novels set in great houses, but when the house itself becomes an entity able to exert influence in those who inhabit it, you have to wonder if there really is such a thing as ghosts.

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Willpower: Wanted to Write this Post, but…

It seems if you look for an image representing Willpower, you more likely will find one for Temptation. Willpower is as hard to define as it is to summon.  Instead, we think of will power as something we must call on to deliver us from temptation.  The common image that comes to mind is the devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, each whispering in an ear.  Or, just as common, is the image of a young woman looking with lust at a tasty treat, trying to summon the power not to succumb to “just one bite.” But willpower is much more.

Read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by authors Roy F. Baueister, a researcher with expertise in neuroscience, and John Tierney, the NY Times Science writer.  You will learn a host of new facts about this things called willpower:  that it is a concept that went out of style with the Victorians, that it is a limited resource which can be drained (or strengthened, thank goodness), that one spends approximately four hours each day resisting temptation (which exhausts willpower)–I’m sure I spend much more time than that!–and that resisting temptation takes mental energy, which depletes our reserves, but which can be replenished by an injection of glucose.  Sugar to the rescue!  So, maybe Oscar Wilde had it right, the best way to avoid temptation is simply to give in to it.  The book is a fascinating read on the physiology/neuroscience involved in this thing we call willpower.  The writing is fun and personal, the “case study” examples are fresh and amusing, and it is chock full of fun facts for entertaining friends at your next cocktail party.  I am not sure it helped me much with my flagging willpower, but it did lend some insights into its causes.  Turning now from the use of willpower to avoid unwanted behaviors, I am more interested in the willpower (or discipline) of individuals who can will themselves to perform a desired task.  The book does speak about developing strong, ingrained behaviors which held to strengthen willpower (for example, Stanley, while lost and starving in the jungles of Africa, never failed to rise every morning and shave.)  I want to find that willpower that will make me sit down an accomplish a task.  And, the task that most often is “put off” by more pressing ones is writing.  When I had to write my Master’s thesis, the house was the cleanest it had ever been.  Whenever I sit in front of that blank screen, or with pen in hand and notebook at the ready, I will do almost anything to avoid making a start.  And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  One you start, once you get in a flow, it really isn’t as bad as all that.  A great book to read on the craft of writing (and there are many!) cleverly entitled “On Writing” by Stephen King is by far one of the best I have read.  He addresses the universal writers block issue (although he is a prolific writer) with helpful advice that put me in mind of the wisdom in “Willpower”.  You have to show up.  You have to come to the paper every day — some writers make it the same time every day — and you have to do something, even if you end up tearing it up later.  This is similar to the advice in Judith Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” wherein she advises one write morning pages, three full pages each morning, even if you are just writing “This is dumb and I dont know what to write.”  The exercise off-loads a lot of mental baggage we all carry around, puts it somewhere, and frees you up to get on with other tasks.  Much like the conventional advice in many self-help programs: write down a to do list and put one or two first steps you can take.  Well, I’m not sure any of this has helped me with my writing aversion when it is on me full force.  It is a lot like exercise, I love the feeling when its over.  In fact, I empathize with the great James Joyce…there is a tale about his famous lack of productivity.  He was in despair over it, and a friend exclaimed helpfully, “But look, you wrote seven words today!” to which Joyce responded, “Yes, put I still don’t know what order they go in…”

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