Tag Archives: Issues in Modern Culture

Year in Review: 2017

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I haven’t written a “year in review” since the end of 2014, but this year I felt the desire to do so as 2017 becomes 2018. While there are plenty of awful things that happened globally in 2017 – politically, environmentally, etc. – I would like to focus on the more personal positives in this post.

Running and fitness in 2017:

On the way to a 5-mile PB at the Perivale 5, Dec 2017. Photo credit: Bespoke Photos.

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2017 I ran 973.1km =  604.66mi. This is about 39 more miles than in 2016, so I’ll take that as a slight improvement.
  • The first half of the running year wasn’t great, as I had a really nasty virus over the Christmas holidays so had a slow return to fitness in early 2017. I had a brief return to the track in the summer before developing some plantar fasciitis. Since then, I’ve focused on building up my fitness base with tempo work and longer runs. That has seemed to work, as in fall/winter I ran my fastest 10k since 2015 and a 5-mile PR/PB!
  • In 2017 I discovered how much I love trail running/racing. Now that I have invested in trail shoes, I hope to do more trail running in 2018. I ran in Trent Park for the first time and loved it.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,760.3km = 1,715.17mi of commuting to/from work in London. About 200km/124mi more than in 2016.

Favorite books read in 2017:

  • In 2017 I read about 21 books. I didn’t love everything I read but here are some books that have stuck with me after finishing them:
  • Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard. I’ve loved Chevalier’s writing ever since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring as a teenager. Chevalier also happens to be an Oberlin graduate and I was fortunate to see her speak when I was in college. At the Edge of the Orchard is a historical novel of migration to the American West during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and ’50s. The human characters are interesting but much of the novel is actually about trees: apple orchards and then California’s redwoods and giant sequoias. It has really stuck with me and I’ve recommended it to a number of people.
    • I also read Chevalier’s newest novel, New Boy, this year. It’s a chilling retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set on a school playground and I’d recommend it to any English teachers for their students to read alongside the original play.
  • Somehow in all my study of English literature, I had never read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. My parents recommended it to me after reading it for their book club a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with this early detective novel. It has all the good stuff – missed messages, mistaken identities, charming villains – while remaining accessible even for those who aren’t used to reading 19th-century novels.
  • I absolutely love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (the first one is called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and this year I read the seventh and eighth books back to back. Every time I open a Russell-Holmes novel, it feels like coming home. Something about King’s writing style just sits well with me. The novels are at once historically dense, character-driven, and detailed but not slow-moving. My dad first got hooked on the series years ago, and I would recommend it to anyone who, to use Netflix-speak, enjoys “historical novels with a strong female lead”. There’s also plenty of mystery and detective work involved!
  • I loved Robin Hobb’s 4-book series, The Rain Wild Chronicles, recommended by a fellow choir singer. Hobb creates a fascinating and robust fantasy world – realist but with touches of the magic and mythical – and tells a good story.
  • Rachel Sieffert, A Boy in Winter. A poignant WWII novel set in a small Ukrainian town. Sad but beautifully written and worth reading for a slightly different perspective.
  • Darragh McKeon, All that is Solid Melts into Air. Wow was this good. A close family friend – my Belgian “aunt” – recommended it and I loved it. It’s set in Soviet Ukraine/Russia/Belarus in the late 1980s around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The shifting perspectives never felt jarring and it’s quite timely, despite being a historical novel. Highly recommended.
  • F and I finished reading Walter Moers’ Die 13 1/2 Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär, an epic fantasy-type novel that we took turns reading aloud. It helped my German a lot and was good fun! I also finished a book of short stories in German – Karen Köhler’s Wir Haben Raketen Geangelt – that were almost all depressing but I loved the writing style and it was accessible enough for me to understand most of what was going on.

Other highlights & achievements, in no particular order:

  • Singing Bach’s St John Passion in English with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Bach Camerata at St John Smith’s Square in central London.
  • Visiting my close friend Hannah in Bulgaria, where she’s working as a Fulbright ETA.
  • Spending a lovely long weekend with F in Bath.
  • Family and friends descending on London for our post-wedding celebration in July. It was lovely to have a casual party in a local pub and that so many people made the effort to come from near and far.
  • Spending a week walking in the Cotswolds with F. We stayed in a little AirBnB in the village of Longborough and spent each day walking a different loop, stopping for pub lunches and enjoying our escape from big city life.
  • After three years teaching ESOL to migrant women at a charity in Tower Hamlets, I got a new job at a charity in Hackney. I’m still teaching ESOL mainly in Tower Hamlets but also learning about and sharpening my skills in project management and partnerships. It was hard to leave my old team – a close-knit group of amazing women – but it was the right move to make and I’m enjoying my new role. It’s also interesting to see how two charities in the same sector operate quite differently.

Cotswolds walking

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2018 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things. We hope to travel a bit more this year and I’d like to build up my running mileage to 10-mile or even half marathon fitness.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2017:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2018


(Belated) Birthday Wisdom 2015

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

Last week was my “golden birthday” of turning 27 on the 27th — only happens once! Things have been busy around here so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and reflect on my 27th year until now.

Last year I wrote about settling into London life; this past year has brought more of that but from a different perspective.

After finishing my MA in English in September, I started my first “real” (i.e., full-time) job as an ESOL teacher at the Women’s Project of a charity in London’s Borough of Tower Hamlets. Perhaps stupidly, at the same time I embarked upon four months of DELTA training; the “part-time” course plus a 9-5 job brought my working hours per week up to about 60. Somehow I got through (and passed), but I wouldn’t recommend doing a DELTA while working full time. Over the year I have grown and developed as a teacher, drawing on my training and past experience while sometimes resorting to good ol’ trial-and-error.

This year there were also a stressful couple of weeks in January when the UK Border Agency almost deported me (for unfounded reasons)… Luckily, a lawyer and my workplace intervened in time to secure me a work visa.

I haven’t run many road races — and no cross-country races — since June 2014 but I have run two PR/PBs, at the 10k and 10 mile distances. My commute to work is almost 8 miles each way on the bike, which is great for maintenance and base fitness.

If I were to offer a brief word of wisdom this year, it would be this:

Prioritize the important things/people/activities in your life — the things that make you the happiest and best person you can be — and use those priorities to find balance.

With that, I wish you all a balanced and peaceful year.

Year in Review: 2014

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I can hardly believe it’s already 2015, can you? 2014 was quite a year, I hardly know how to sum it up. For brevity’s sake, let’s go with some good ol’ bullet points.

2014 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 92 or so
  • books read: too many to count — some for fun and lots for my MA course
  • miles run: 549 (quite a lot less than last year, due to hip/knee issues)
  • miles cycled: 2,028.65 (mostly commuting in London, but a decent amount of road cycling in the first half of the year)
  • courses completed: 2 (1 MA in English & 1 DELTA course)
  • countries been in: England, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Germany, USA
  • weddings attended: 2

Looking back on my intentions for 2014, I more or less achieved most of them, although things like improving my German and staying in better touch with friends and family could always be worked on. My main intention for 2015 is to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and my other hobbies like cooking. That comes with some sub-intentions, like building up my running mileage and speed without getting injured.

In some blog-related reflecting, here are two listicles of my top posts — via views and via my opinion — from 2014:

The 10 most popular posts in 2014 (your favorites?):

My 10 favorite posts/moments in 2014 (in no particular order):

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2015

Summer “Issues”: Dissertation!

Apologies for the massive delay in MA updates. Last time I checked in, we’d finished courses and were writing essays and an exam. That all went pretty smoothly for me (though  nothing’s been marked yet so who really knows?) — the take-home exam was actually kind of enjoyable, as I’d prepared my texts in advance and just had to write close readings without worrying about bringing in secondary sources (some people did use criticism but it was optional so I chose not to for such short essays).

That was almost three months ago (!), and at that time I still didn’t have any ideas for my dissertation. Actually, writing about Mrs. Dalloway for one of my coursework essays made me really want to work on Woolf and trauma, but that quickly went out the window when I became overwhelmed by how much has already been written on Woolf (and trauma, in texts like Atonement and The Bluest Eye). I also wanted something more “relevant,” at least to me and my current life and experiences. So after some conversations and advice from my family, I turned toward cultural displacement/assimilation and spent a few weeks bumbling around on JSTOR by plugging word combinations into the search bars (“trauma,” “integration,” “culture shock,” “assimilation,” to name a few). Luckily, one mindless JSTOR session turned up an essay on Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What.

research in Senate House Library

research in Senate House Library

BINGO! I’d read What Is the What — and loved it — right before the Peace Corps and had forgotten how it deals with many of the issues of cultural integration, education, and international development that interest me. It was also a good choice because only four scholarly articles have been published on it, which leaves me room to form my own argument about it and not struggle to come up with something that hasn’t already been written on a hundred times.

Fast forward to now: I’ve re-read What Is the What twice; read lots of criticism and some theory on immigration, post-colonial novels, and storytelling traditions (to name a few); met with my supervisor twice (he’s great); and started drafting. It’s a bit overwhelming, as there’s a lot of material to juggle and an argument to work out and it’s all due on 1 September. But overall it’s going well and I am happy with my text and topic choice. I can’t tell you much because it hasn’t been marked (let alone written!), but it’s roughly about storytelling and voice and the immigrant experience, with some Toni Morrison thrown in for good measure.


Recently in “Issues”: End of Term 2

Now that it’s almost the end of April and three weeks after classes have finished, it’s well past time for an MA update. Here’s a quick review of the second half of the second term of my “Issues in Modern Culture” MA program(me).

Modern Sex ended and I embarked upon a five-week Post-War American Poetry module taught by Mark Ford. He took a similar approach to this class as he did with the Elizabeth Bishop seminar, looking at how one could critically approach each poet if one were to write about him/her. Let me break down the seminars:

  • We started off with Robert Lowell, the best confessional poet you’ve never heard of! We read poems from his Life Studies (1959), the volume that basically kicked off the “Confessional Poetry” movement, which Sylvia Plath took up and made famous. Lowell came from the blue-blooded Boston Lowell aristocracy that traced its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. But dear Robert suffered from manic-depression and was in and out of hospitals for a good chunk of his life — these experiences, of course, he crafted into poems, such as the moving “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell was also good friends with Elizabeth Bishop and was highly influenced by her poetry. He represents the major trajectory of many post-war American poets — a trajectory that we talked about for almost all the poets we looked at in the class: early poems are grounded in formal tradition, then the poet has some sort of breakthrough into a new idiom of expression. The Modernist–>Postmodernist trajectory, if you will.
  • My favorite seminar was on Allen Ginsberg. I love reading Ginsberg, in part because of his Whitmanesque roots (since I also love Whitman). The seminar was somewhat comical because Mark spent much of the time talking about how Ginsberg is actually really hard to write about (“immune to literary criticism”), because his poetry and persona are pretty transparent to begin with. That said, there are definitely ways to approach him: Jewish inheritance, Ginsberg and money/capitalism/marketing, Ginsberg’s body, the Cold War and paranoia… If you haven’t read any Ginsberg, go read “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” now.
  • Frank O’Hara frankly (pun intended) didn’t do much for me. Maybe because I don’t know New York City very well and many of his poems are set there. That said, the seminar was really good. We talked about O’Hara in the context of the New York School of Poets (who disliked Lowell and loved Bishop) and about his “camp” wit (think Sontag) and the city as central to his work. He wrote a lot of what Mark called “I do this, I do that” poems (“A Step Away from Them” is a good example) and “lunch poems.”
  • For the Adrienne Rich seminar, we covered Rich and the “female” poetry resistant to patriarchal oppression that she, Plath, and Anne Sexton wrote. “Diving into the Wreck” is a fun read that can be interpreted in myriad ways.
  • Our last seminar was on St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, best known for Omeros, his rough re-interpretation of The Iliad. We read Book I of Omeros for the seminar and the discussion centered largely on Walcott’s hybridity and all-encompassing method that blends together European tradition with “New World” (North & South American, Caribbean) methods. Omeros employs some features of the epic poem and its characters all have some relation to myth and tradition.

Post-War American Poetry was a great course and I learned a huge amount about the poets, poetic tradition, and critical approaches to poetry, all of which has made me a bit more comfortable reading and talking about poetry.

On Wednesdays, Authors kept on plugging to the end of term. Our last four seminars (after Elizabeth Bishop) were on Sylvia PlathThomas Pynchon (full disclosure: I got about 1/8 of the way through Mason & Dixon), Tom Stoppard (Travesties is brilliant and hilarious — read it!), and J.M. Coetzee (I couldn’t stand Disgrace but the seminar was good).

So that’s it for courses.

But that’s not all for the program(me).

We still have a take-home essay exam for “Authors” and an essay each for Contexts and the two Options (Modern Sex and Poetry for me). Oh, and a dissertation proposal. All of those are due between 1 May and 2 June. Then we spend all summer writing the dissertation, to be handed in on 1 September.

What am I writing about for all these essays? I can’t disclose details since the essays haven’t been marked, but I can give you a list of topics/texts: Madame Bovary, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sherlock, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, and Billy Collins. For the dissertation? No idea.


This Week in “Issues”: Reading Elizabeth Bishop

The second half of my second term of graduate school kicked off this week with a stimulating seminar on Elizabeth Bishop. Our professor, Mark Ford (also a poet; he even has his own little Wikipedia page!), helped us get into Bishop by discussing different critical approaches one could take if one were to write an essay on her. As I am not a “poetry person” and often struggle with identifying vague metaphors, this was a really helpful way for me to think about Bishop’s work (and poetry in general); Mark’s approach made it very accessible. Here are some ways one could approach Bishop and her poetry:

  • “Bishop and [anything]” (that could mean “Bishop and birds,” “Bishop and coasts,” etc.)
  • Queer theory: Bishop was a lesbian, so one could look at her in relation to other homosexual poets like Frank O’Hara or Adrienne Rich
  • Bishop’s post-war work in relation to the Modernist poets (Eliot, Pound)
  • Bishop and the tradition of Romantic lyric poetry (vs. the radical experimentation of many other “post-modernist” poets)
  • Postcolonial angle: Bishop traveled a lot and lived for a while in Brazil, so one could take a postcolonial approach to her Brazil poems
  • Looking at Bishop’s work through the lens of her selfhood and growing up “in a void,” with a dead father and insane mother — along with this, the concept of home/homelessness that is evident in Bishop’s life and poetry.
  • Bishop’s use of form: she was “technically resourceful” and used traditional poetic forms — villanelle, sestina, sonnet, ballad — in interesting ways
  • Bishop’s representation vs. experience of the world

Mark had us look at a few of Bishop’s poems to show how we could take some of the above approaches to her work. We started with “The Map” (1936), which Mark said was a good portal through which to approach the “Bishopian.” Here’s the poem in full:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Lovely, no? This poem gave us a good start in talking about Bishop’s whimsy and her representation of the aesthetic vs. reality. Whimsy is everywhere, in the “moony Eskimo,” “stroke[ing] these lovely bays,” the printer “experiencing…excitement,” and taking the water “between thumb and finger.” Is Bishop here feminizing a masculine creation (maps, created by male explorers)? Or is this merely a childlike whimsy, as in posing the faux-naive question, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?”

“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” the poem ends. Bishop is playing with representation of a map as a piece of art, an aesthetic representation of historical, geopolitical reality. The art of the map is an escape from historians’ reality — but history still lurks at the edges.

After “The Map,” we went on to discuss the above and other aspects of Bishop’s poetry in: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Crusoe in England.” Mark ended the seminar by noting that the different factions of American poetry in the post-war years all hated each other — but they all loved Bishop.


This Term in “Issues”: More Authors, Modern Sex, & American Poetry

Winter break is winding down. I’ve handed in my “Contexts” essay draft (on the BBC series, Sherlock) and await my tutor’s feedback. Term two of my Issues in Modern Culture MA starts next week. Here’s what’s in store…

The “Authors” course continues with a canonical author a week. Last term we covered Flaubert, James, Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Green, Joyce, Woolf, Cather, and Beckett. This term we’ll kick things off with Stevens, then move on to Rhys, Bowen, Nabokov, Achebe, Bishop, Plath, Pynchon, Stoppard, and Coetzee. With the exception of some Stevens and Bishop, I haven’t read any of the upcoming authors, which is both intimidating and exciting. I’m particularly looking forward to the Nabokov and Stoppard seminars, in part because of the material and in part because they’ll be taught by young female lecturers, who can be few and far between in the upper echelons of academia.

Last term, our second course was “Contexts,” which I really enjoyed. This term, our second course will be two five-week module courses. For each set of five weeks, we take one of three “options”: A) Film OR Ludic Literature OR “Modern Sex”; and then B) 21st Century Fiction OR “Cultures of the Night” OR or Post-War American Poetry.

First up for me: “Modern Sex: Eroticism and Literary Writing.” Great title, isn’t it? I picked it because the reading/seminar list looked the most interesting. The course description says,

This set of five seminars will explore cultural representations of desire, of sex and eroticism, and of sexual identity, from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Tantalized yet? Just take a look at the seminar titles:

  1. The history of “sexuality” (i.e., Freud and super sexist Schopenhauer): “introduction to ways of thinking about desire, the individual, the species, connections between sex, love and death.”
  2. Wagner, Desire and Death: watching and discussing Tristan und Isolde. Though I’m not a huge Wagner fan, I do like opera — this seminar was one reason I chose to take the course.
  3. D.H. LawrenceWomen in Love and DHL’s ideology about sex.
  4. Thomas Mann & André GideDeath in Venice and The Immoralist
  5. Modern Gay Writing and Cinema: works by Hollinghurst, Edmund White, Christopher Coe, Oscar Moore.

My second “option” module will be Post-War American Poetry, with one poet a week for the five weeks of term. We’ll do Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Derek Walcott — I can’t remember the other two. Though I have never identified as a “poetry person,” this course appealed the most to me of the three options, and I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to branch out and challenge myself with some non-prose.

So that’s this term in “Issues.” The above courses run through March, then we have a month off, then we write write write (and write some more). I hope to post some updates and musings as the term moves along.

Is there anything in particular you’d like me to write about this term? Please let me know in a comment!


This Week in “Issues”: Photography

Now that the term is more than halfway over, it’s high time for another “Issues in Modern Culture” (that’s my MA program) update. After an intense five days immersed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I looked forward to Friday’s seminar on photography.

Our primary reading was Susan Sontag’s iconic On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Both books made for enjoyable and thought provoking reading. Sontag’s is an incredibly detailed history of photography as she sees it, and is also strikingly modern in its discussion of what photography is and what photographs represent. I was also pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of Barthes; he’s notorious for his dense, quasi-philosophical literary criticism. 

The seminar turned out to be stimulating and rewarding. Our lecturer, GD, facilitated an interesting discussion of photography and had a slideshow of some of the photos Sontag and Barthes mention in their works, which he referred to periodically. At the beginning of the seminar, GD posed a couple of questions that we kept coming back to throughout the two hours:

  • How has digital photography “changed the game” since Sontag and Barthes wrote their books?
    • Does it change the way we experience photos?
    • Does it change our relationship to photos?
    • Does it undermine Sontag’s & Barthes’ points (since they were writing in the ’70s, the pre-digital age)?

These questions brought us a few times to the topic of social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Because digital photos are instantaneous — we can view and share them almost immediately after taking them — they have perhaps eliminated the need to wait for the “perfect moment” to take a picture. The instantaneous nature of digital photos also leads them to take on a more filmic quality. Sontag mentions that photos are taken to validate experience; this leads to a sort of voyeurism in the photographer (10*). Today, this voyeuristic tendency is taken further, as (digital) photos are shared on Facebook and Instagram, blurring the lines between private and public as we give others access to many parts of our lives and spend time assessing our friends’ lives via their photos.

Digital photography may also cause photography to be distinguished less as an art now, because today anyone can take photos (but not every person who takes photos is an artist). How, then, do we decide if photography is art? Sontag’s argument that photography “is a medium in which works of art…are made,” not art itself (148), may break down in the digital age because the medium is less specialized — there’s no film to carefully develop with special chemicals.

In a way, digital photography has made the medium even more democratic; we talked about how this could be good or bad. On the one hand, digital photography doesn’t respect the investment of of the photographer, like non-digital does. On the other hand, we can photograph anything and anyone can take photographs. But it also problematizes the relationship between the image itself and what Barthes calls the “referent” — the subject of the photo.

We finished the seminar by focusing on two photos — a Winogrand and a Sander — and musing on how to write about photographs. Do we analyze them as texts? Do we read in social context? Do we read them subjectively? There are myriad ways in which we could write about a photograph: its composition, framing, intent (posed/staged vs. candid/natural), angles, spaces, symmetry/asymmetry…The list goes on.

Other topics we touched on in the seminar were the natural surrealism of photography, the theatrical nature of photography (as Barthes argues), the simultaneous passivity and aggressiveness of photography, and photography’s realism. It was a fascinating discussion and left me with a lot to think about.

What’s your take? How do you think digital photography affect our experience of and relationship to photographs today? Post your thoughts in a comment, below.

*Page numbers from Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc, 1977.


Living London, Writing London

In mid-October The New York Times published a piece called “Lessons from Living in London,” written by Sarah Lyell, who spent a number of years living in London as a correspondent for the paper. Coincidentally, that same week my MA course‘s “Contexts” seminar covered Henry James’ travel essays on New York (from The American Sceneand London (from English Hours).  James’ “London” is a brilliant little travel piece; though it was written 125 years ago (!), many of James’ points about the city are still relevant today. In the following, I attempt to bring together Lyell’s and James’ essays with my own observations on living in London — though I’ve been here less than a year, I can already relate to a lot. 

One of the first things I noticed after moving to London was how the city seems to be made up of little pockets and neighborhoods that trick you into thinking you’re not living in a city of 8 million. But when you have to go somewhere, you realize how huge it is. Lyell puts it well:

Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole, and because it can be an undertaking to travel to another part of town for a social occasion, geography starts to feel like destiny.

This is so true. Our little area of North London feels very neighborhood-y, and everything we need is within a 1.5-mile radius. It would be easy never to venture further afield (a-city?), and indeed it is “an undertaking” if we decide to go somewhere outside of our familiar neighborhood bubble. We have to plan ahead and take travel time and mode — Tube, bus, bike — into account. How late I’ll be coming home determines if I’ll cycle or take public transport. Whether or not I’ll even go depends on how long it would take to get there and back related to how much time I’d be spending at my destination. I never had to think about these things before, in the States or in Ukraine, where everything was within walking or driving distance.

In a similar vein, Lyell and James both touch on a fascinating result of living in London (and in many other big cities, I imagine). James classifies London as “democratic,” by which he means “You may be in it, of course, without being of it…” (16*). Lyell must have read James’ essay, because she essentially paraphrases him when she says “Londoners wear their urban identities…lightly, living in the city but not necessarily of it.” She goes on to note that “In London, people keep themselves to themselves, as the expression goes, and this can feel either liberating or lonely.” I’ve chatted about this phenomenon with a few people recently: how it can be freeing to remain in your head as you move through such a big city, but how it can also be lonely never to smile at or strike up a conversation with any other people. The latter seems to be largely a London (or European city) thing; I’ve been told that in northern England people are very friendly and often chat with strangers. In the States, too, it’s pretty likely that people will at least smile at each other after inadvertently making eye contact.

Of course — I bet you thought I’d never get to it — we can’t talk about London without mentioning the weather; Lyell and James both know this. Lyell approaches London’s weather with a sense of practicality and as the last word in her essay: “Finally, when you leave the house, dress in layers so that you can add and subtract items according to the vicissitudes of the weather.” Layers are definitely key here. The weather is changeable; you may head to work under a clear blue sky, but it isn’t unlikely you’ll be going home in a rain shower. I almost always throw in a rain shell when I cycle to university, just in case. James also notes the weather, most memorably near the beginning of the essay when he writes about “the low, magnificent medium of the sky” and how the weather causes a “strangely undefined hour of the day and season of the year […] the red gleams and blurs that may or may not be of sunset” (7). James hits it on the nose here — the sky often darkens in the afternoon, and I wonder if it’s already evening until I look at my watch and realize it’s still early the middle of the day. Or the low clouds will hang in the sky all day, giving everything a dull grayness which makes it hard to tell how early or late it is.

A cultural quirk that Lyell (and any other foreigners who have lived in London) points out is that “there are as many meanings for the word “sorry” as there are hours in the day.” As far as I understand, “sorry” can mean “excuse me,” “I apologize [for bumping into you],” “What?”, and “Sorry for interrupting.” I’m sure there are plenty of subtler meanings that I haven’t yet picked up on. James seems to take a jab at this tendency when he writes, “It is doubtless a single proof of being a London-lover…that one should undertake an apology for so bungled an attempt at a great public place as Hyde Park Corner” (12). I chuckled at that — I guess “sorry” has been in the mix for quite a while!

There is a lot in the James essay that I would love to delve further into. In my MA course’s seminar on James’ travel writing from London and New York, our professor (we’ll call him PH) noted how the London essay is (was) a new kind of travel writing, a combination of travel essay, memoir, and meditation on the meaning of London. PH also touched on how James’ characterization of London is as an “urban sublime”: it exceeds limitations and expectations, and there’s some kind of ambivalence between the city’s cruelty — “the mighty ogress who devours human flesh” (15) in this “hideous, vicious, cruel” city (4) — and its charm, beauty, and “immeasurable” or “infinite” qualities (18, 20).

I also love the last sentence of James’ “London” essay, which basically disregards the previous 30 pages he’s written:

...out of [London’s] richness and its inexhaustible good humour it belies the next hour any generalisation you may have been so simple as to make about it. (29)

That pretty much sums it up!


Do you or have you ever lived in London or somewhere else as an ex-pat (or native)? I invite you to contribute to the dialogue by leaving a comment below with your own experiences. It would be great to get a conversation going. In fact, my good friend Sam also read these two pieces and was also inspired to write about them, since he’s lived in London and just moved to New York City. Look out for a guest post from him soon!


*page numbers from: Henry James, English Hours (1905), London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011.

Issues in Modern Culture

“Hi, I’m _____________ and I do ‘Issues’.”

That’s how about fifteen of us introduced ourselves in this week’s inaugural Contemporary Short Fiction Reading Group.

“Issues” is, of course, short for “Issues in Modern Culture,” which is the official name of my MA program at University College London (from here on out known as UCL). It’s a “taught” program on Modernist literature with a smattering of culture/society/historical context.

This post will give an overview of the program’s structure — quite different from the US university system — and what we’ve done thus far. I can’t promise to post weekly updates but will try to periodically share particularly interesting tidbits. I will also update my Reading List with the texts we’re meant to tackle each week.

There are 47 of us “doing ‘Issues'”: Brits, Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, a Romanian, an Australian or two, an Israeli, and probably people from other countries whom I haven’t met yet. Many have just finished their BAs, but some of us (myself included) have been out of school and doing other things for a number of years. A pretty diverse group, overall.

We’re split into two groups for our weekly two-hour seminars, of which we have two. Yes — only 4 “contact hours” per week! That’s already a departure from the American system, which likes to get you into class as often as possible. Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll take four courses:

  • “Authors” spans both terms and, as you may expect, covers the main (canonical) authors leading up to and through literary Modernism. For Authors, we have to read at least a novel or so per week — that’ll keep us busy when we’re not in class. Our first two weeks covered Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and In the Cage); next week is Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim).
  • “Contexts” happens this term and looks at the social/historical/cultural contexts behind the development of Modernism. It’s broken into two chunks: “Modernity and the City” and “Modern Forms.” We’re in the first part now and have already covered Baudelaire’s poems and prose poems on mid-19th-century Paris. Tomorrow’s seminar is called “Epiphany and the Everyday” and is theory-based (think Barthes, Blanchot, Lefebvre — dense stuff). Next week is “Detective Fiction”: Poe, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler. I’m pumped for that and will think fondly of my first-year seminar in “African-American Detective Fiction” at Oberlin.
  • Next term, we’ll pick two of six more specific “Options” — each will last half a term. Our choices include “Modernism and Sex,” “Film,” and “Cultures of the Night.” Exciting! More on these later.

Unlike the American (undergraduate) system, where we had at least two or three papers to write throughout each semester, the grades for our MA depend on one paper per course at the end of each term, plus the dissertation. And no class participation grades to pad the final mark. Not much room for error! But, as a classmate pointed out, getting the MA is the real goal in the end, regardless of final grade.

We have a group of professors/lecturers/teacher-people helping with the course — each lecturer teaches his/her specialty, so we have a different seminar leader almost every week (with some repeats). This is nice because we’re getting “expert” perspectives, but it also may prove difficult to form any kind of personal/professional relationships with our lecturers. We will be assigned a Tutor, though, who will guide us on the Contexts paper, so that will be a good connection to make.

That’s about it so far. I’m still getting to know my classmates, but the ones with whom I’ve interacted are nice, smart, and interesting. Everyone seems really excited and willing to collaborate. Stay tuned for future updates, and don’t forget to check out my Reading List to see what we’re studying.