Are you tired of all those ‘Things to do in your twenties’ articles yelling at you to travel the world? I am. While travelling the world is a really, really good idea, sometimes life throws a stones in your path which disallow you from spending your money on travels – or perhaps you’re not earning enough to save up for a long round-the-world trip. It’s alright – if you can’t spend thousands on travelling just yet, there is still hope: books. Yep, as always, books come to the rescue. It may not be quite the same as jetting off and seeing the sights, but with a little imagination, curling up in your favourite chair and picking up a book set in the destination of your dreams can scratch the wanderlust itch… at least until you can finally gather together the money to make it a reality.
To start off this series, let’s look at some brilliant books set in London. From classic to contemporary, these books offer up plenty of windows through which to gaze at the city of dreams, lights, misery and new beginnings.
1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
Detailing a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a London socialite, the novel is one of Woolf’s best-known and best-loved. Look out at the world through the character’s eyes as she makes preparations for a party she is to host in the evening. The narrative travels back and forth in time, constructing a literary collage of the protagonist’s life, inner life, and the post-war society in which she lives. With the bruises of the recent war still visible in its fabric, London is more than a passive setting in the novel, and often takes centre stage with the author mentioning landmarks which both ground the story in a real location, and also serve as profound symbols for the characters’ lives. With themes as broad as feminism, homosexuality, existentialism and mental illness, Mrs Dalloway is often considered one of the most important fictional works of the 20th century.
Notable quote: “She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”
2. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996)
Neil Gaiman’s first novel, Neverwhere, is one of the most popular London novels, as well as one of the best-loved urban fantasy novels. The novel introduces us to Richard Mayhew – something of an underdog, and a newcomer to the city. When he meets an injured, homeless girl (or so he thinks) and helps her, he quickly finds himself in a strange new reality incorporating the city which exists around and below the city: London Below. Now trapped in this world, and on the run from a couple of malevolent time-travellers, he must make his journey through this new vision of London. Gaiman makes wonderful use of the London Underground and its many stops, creating – for example – a real court in which an Earl resides, a sublime Angel called Islington, and the explanation behind the ubiquitous warnings to ‘Mind the Gap’. Both hilarious and unsettling, the novel never takes itself too seriously, but it is clear that plenty of meticulous research has gone into creating the novel’s magical London. If you have ever dreamt of visiting London, this is definitely the book for you.
Notable quote: “Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”
3. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (2009)
Set mainly in London’s beautifully haunting Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger acted as a tour guide while she was researching this novel, Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of a set of identical twins who inherit a flat in London when their aunt, who they have only met once, dies. Although their aunt and their mother, who were sisters, have been estranged for years, the twins decide to move to London as they come of age. A ghost story at its core, the novel skilfully builds characters and weaves a tapestry of delicate relationships between them – and this is what is most compelling. Touching upon the themes of love, loneliness, grief, and doppelgangers, the book takes an impossible premise and makes it plausible – all set within the stoney silence of the cemetery.
Notable quote: “There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic: this was usually Valentina’s first impulse. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”
4. London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)
Readers familiar with Amis’s work will know him to be a master at mixing dark humour, introspection, insight and anxiety, and this novel is solid evidence of this. An unlinear murder-mystery, London Fields is set in 1999, in a world which faces the looming threat of nuclear war, and a morally degraded London. A cast of grotesque, completely unredeemable characters assemble in a dank West London pub. The protagonist and narrator, Samson Young, has suffered from writer’s block for 20 years, is slowly dying of some terminal illness, and the novel opens with him expressing gratitude at having found an already-formed story just waiting to be written.
Notable quote: “People are chaotic quiddities living in one cave each. They pass the hours in amorous grudge and playback and thought experiment. At the campfire they put the usual fraction on exhibit, and listen to their own silent gibber about how they’re feeling and how they’re going down. We’ve been there. Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it’s a full time job looking the other way.”
5. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)
Whether you love it or can’t wrap your head around it, White Teeth is one of those ambitious, expansive novels that captures the essence of a society in flux. Met by great critical acclaim, it is the story of two wartime friends – a Bangladeshi man and an English man – and their families, and their lives in London after the war. It is an epic spanning a broad range of themes: from immigration and identity, to race and assimilation, and paints a vivid picture of a multicultural London.
Notable quote: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”
6. Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2003)
In this celebrated novel, follow Nazneen – born in an idyllic village in Bangladesh in 1969 – whose life seems to have been left in the hands of the Fates. In her teens she is married off to an older man and moves to East London. Her beautiful younger sister, meanwhile, elopes with her first love, and the book explores their parallel lives in the two countries. Exploring themes of displacement, adultery, love, abuse, and survival, the book nevertheless retains its light tone and sense of humour, which keeps it from falling into the territory of melodrama and lends it a charmingly human touch.
Notable quote: “And so they entwined their lives to drink from the pools of each other’s sadness. From these special watering holes, each man drew strength.”
7. Tunnel Vision, Keith Lowe (2001)
Andy is a 20-something bookshop clerk who lives in London. He likes the London Underground… a lot. On the eve of his wedding to Rachel (whom he also met on the Tube), he makes a drunken bet with Rolf: he bets he can visit all of the London Underground stations in just one day. Only by completing this challenge can he get the Eurostar tickets to Paris, where his fiancee will be waiting for him.
Notable quote: “You see, the Tube isn’t like other railways. It’s happening, it’s now. It’s sexy.”
8. Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005)
Set in Fitzrovia over one single day – Saturday 15 February 2003 – the novel deals with the comings and goings of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne whose day culminates in a family dinner in the evening. On that particular Saturday, the protagonist goes about his chores whilst pondering a large demonstration happening that day against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the events which led to it. His day, however, is disrupted when he meets a violent man. In this novel, McEwan explores terrorism and violence, and the fragility of human life as seen from a clinical, medical perspective. Other themes include happiness, purpose, political engagement, and rationalism.
Notable quote: “He never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.”
9. A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch (1961)
Set in and around London, this satirical novel focuses on the lives and struggles of the middle classes. The protagonist, Martin – a 40-something wine merchant – is married and having an affair with a young academic. When his wife reveals she is leaving him for her psychoanalyst, he is shocked. Soon, he falls in love with yet another woman and uncovers a web of adultery, incest, and secrets best left alone. A study of bougeois hedonism, the novel is considered one of Murdoch’s most entertaining.
Notable quote: “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship…”
10. The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene (1943)
Few writers can distil the essence of neurosis like Graham Greene. Set in London during the Blitz, this novel details the story of Arthur Rowe, who visits a forlorn fête in Bloomsbury and wins a cake. What he does not realise is that the cake was given to him by mistake, and contains something of great importance to the Germans and, upon accepting it, he has become involved in a grand conspiracy. The novel deals with mental disorder, fear, love, and the fleeting nature of memory.
Notable quote: “But it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”
- Doing the rounds all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds this last week was Ellen Page’s coming out speech, which happened on Feb 14 at a Human Rights Campaign conference for LGBT youths. It is an absolutely beautiful speech which is well worth the time it will take you to watch it.
- Four women took part in an experiment where they were photographed and Photoshopped to look like magazine-cover models. Their reactions will surprise you.
- The chances are that there is somebody in your life who is suffering from a form of depression. Here is how you can help them cope.
- Felix Barrett, director of Punchdrunk, talks about the future of storytelling in a digital age where everything is available at a click of your mouse.
- Back in 2011, the traditional Maltese buses were replaced with new models when the transport system was privatised. This video documents the final days of the old ‘xarabank’.
- I’ve linked to Christina Bianco videos before. The excellent performer does spot-on impressions of music’s greatest divas. Here she is with her cover of Let It Go from Disney’s Frozen.
- This is not an easy read, but it is essential. How the lines of consent are blurred, and admitting to yourself that, no, these things do not “just happen”.
- Joan Didion on telling stories and facing rejection.
- A list of 10 creative rituals you should definitely steal.
- If you’ve ever thought about the possibility of donating your eggs, this is a must-read.
- On a heartening note, doctors are now prescribing books as a way of dealing with depression. Reading helps us feel we are not alone, and helps us connect.
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I love words.
I really, really love words. Their silent power to evoke reactions – some intellectual, some emotional, some even visceral. I love words – those arbitrary combinations of sounds which are at the core of language, which are so heavy with meaning. The love of words is a truth universal to all the writers I know.
Like most Maltese people, I am lucky enough to call two languages my mother tongues. I was raised speaking both English and Maltese at home and with friends. And while English is the language I think and write in, Maltese is a beautiful, complex language which will always influence my experience of the world. Because that is what words do. I’ve mentioned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here before – briefly, it suggests that language affects the way its speakers organise the world and, if you subscribe to this school of thought, that means that the more languages you are exposed to, the more rounded your world-view. My fascination with words has led me to learn three further languages to varying degrees of proficiency, and it always interests me to learn new idioms of the language because they give away so much about the history of that language and the mindset of the people who speak it.
My favourite thing of all, however, perhaps even more than the compulsion to trace the etymology of words back to their roots, is to come across words in other languages which are virtually untranslatable into English. Yes, you can paraphrase them to roughly explain them, but these do in one word what it would otherwise take you a whole sentence to achieve.
Here is a list of my favourite untranslatable words.
1. L’esprit de l’escalier (French). Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’. This refers to the predicament of coming up with the perfect retort when the argument is over and it is too late to use it.
2. Ya’aburnee (Arabic). Literally ‘you bury me’. This is one which, like most things uttered at the height of romance, is both dramatic and slightly morbid. It means that you hope to die before this person does so you may never have to suffer his or her loss.
3. Toska (Russian). Vladimir Nabokov describes this word most poignantly as: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
4. Wabi-sabi (Japanese). This lovely word refers to the act of finding beauty in life’s flaws and imperfections, and accepting them as they are.
5. Torschlusspanik (German). Literally ‘the panic of a gate closing’. This refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities which increases as one ages.
6. Saudade (Portuguese). Refers to the intense longing for a person or place you loved, which which or whom is now lost forever.
7. Hiraeth (Welsh). Similar to ‘saudade’, this word refers to homesickness tinged with grief for a place you can never return to.
8. Komoreb (Japanese). A word used to refer to the sunlight which filters through the leaves of trees.
9. Retrouvailles (French). The happiness of being reunited with a loved one whom you haven’t seen for a long time.
10. Pena Ajena (Spanish). That cringeworthy shame you experience on somebody else’s behalf when they are behaving in an embarrassing way.
11. Schadenfreude (German). This one is a familiar word as it has been adopted into the English vernacular. It refers, of course, to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.
12. L’appel du vide (French). Literally, ‘the call of the void’. This refers to that impulse some of us get to jump when we are standing on a high ledge.
13. Pochemuchka (Russian). A wonderful word which refers to a person who asks far too many questions.
14. Backpfeifengesicht (German). An equally wonderful word which means, literally, a face badly in need of getting punched.
15. Beżżul (Maltese). Somebody who is cursed with unrelentless bad luck. This is similar to the Yiddish words ‘Schlimazl’ and ‘Schlemiel’.
16. Ilunga (Tshiluba – spoken in Southwest Congo). This marvellously specific word refers to the stature of a person “who is ready to forgive any first abuse tolerate it a second time, but absolutely never forgive or tolerate any third offence”.
17. Flâner (French). This is the art of leisurely and aimlessly strolling around the streets [of Paris] without any particular destination in mind, and done simply to bask in the beauty of the city.
18. Ayurnamat (Inuit). The philosophy that there is no need or reason to worry about that which you cannot change. Basically, Hakuna Matata.
19. Desvelado (Spanish). The tiredness that comes specifically from having been kept awake all night – by inconsiderate neighbours, for example.
20. Donaldkacsázás (Hungarian). Quite literally, ‘Donald Ducking’ – i.e. Wearing a shirt but no trousers or underpants inside your house.
21. Atolondrar (Spanish). To be so overwhelmed by something that it causes you to become scatter-brained and careless. For example, if you were multi-tasking so heavily at work that you forgot to send an important e-mail.
22. Żanżan (Maltese). To wear or use something new for the first time. Similar to the Spanish ‘Estrenar’.
23. Fingerspitzengefühl (German). Literally, ‘fingertips feeling’; used to refer to situational awareness, and the ability to react appropriately to a given situation.
24. Tan-te (Mandarin). A sense of uneasiness and worry – as if you were hyper-aware of your own heart beating.
25. Tocayo (Spanish). Somebody who shares your first name is your ‘tocayo’.
26. Gigil (Tagalog). That near-aggressive feeling you get when faced with something excruciatingly cute. Like you want to squeeze it until it pops. Basically, “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die.”
27. Duende (Spanish). Literally translates as ‘goblin’, but actually refers to the heightened stage of emotion and passion connected with performance, most commonly with Flamenco, but applicable to other art forms.
28. Gezellig (Dutch). This word encompasses a number of meanings which refer to something the Dutch hold close to their heart. It is used to mean a sense of cosiness, friendliness, and comfort. Like sitting in your living room with good friends, sipping tasty wine and having fun together – that’s ‘gezellig’.
29. Forelsket (Norwegian). The euphoria that accompanies the early stages of falling in love.
30. Iktsuarpok (Inuit). The feeling of anxious anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone has arrived.
31. Sobremesa (Spanish). That period of time after you’ve finished lunch or dinner, where you just sit and talk with the people you’ve just shared your meal with.
32. Dépaysement (French). The feeling of displacement that comes with not being in one’s home country.
33. Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese). The act of running ones fingers tenderly though somebody’s hair.
34. Kummerspeck (German). Literally, ‘sorrow/grief bacon’, it refers to the weight you might gain from comfort-eating when you are feeling sad.
35. La douleur exquise (French). Literally ‘the exquisite agony’, this is used to refer to the pain of unrequited love.
36. Empalagarse (Spanish). Being overcome by sweetness to the point of nausea – so much that you find yourself needing to drink water or eat something salty to take away the sweetness.
37. Oodal (Tamil). That exaggerated, melodramatic anger that follows lovers’ spats; sulking and throwing a strop in an attempt to get them to apologise.
38. Jayus (Indonesian). A joke so badly told and so unfunny, that you can’t help but laugh at it.
39. Naz (Urdu). The pride or confidence derived from knowing that somebody holds you as the object of their affection and desire.
40. Prozvonit (Czech). The act of calling a mobile phone and only letting it ring once so the other person will call you back, thus saving you money.
- Do you loathe Valentine’s Day? Does the thought of marshmallows and hearts make you roll your eyes so far back into your head you can see your brain? Have a look at my post on the Bookatable blog, with the top 5 Valentine’s Day excuses.
- I love this photo project: transformations of burlesque performers.
- And if you’re in London, you HAVE to go catch a film at the Prince Charles Cinema. It’s only the best cinema in the city.
- Time Out have an article this week on the best places in London to tuck everyone’s new favourite cuisine – Korean. Nothing hits the spot quite like a dol sot bi bim bap.
- Meanwhile, London was paralysed for two days this week by a city-wide Tube strike. But do you know why it happened?
- This article is a must-read. A lot has been said about Terry Richardson’s allegedly inappropriate behaviour on photoshoots. Makes me wonder why nobody has stepped in to do anything about it yet.
- These University ‘spotted’ pages on Facebook make it quite starkly clear that girls and women are still by and large seen as objects. Still think the world doesn’t need feminism any more?
- The excellent Laurie Penny nails it once again with an article on why ‘Girls’ doesn’t represent every woman, and why it shouldn’t have to.
- Have you seen Benedict Cumberbatch on Sesame Street yet?
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- “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.” – Watch all of John Green’s advice on writing and creating, here.
- We’ve just had season 3 of Sherlock; could we be getting season 4 sooner than expected?
- Speaking of Sherlock (constantly): “Fan fiction is where modern storytelling enters the realm of myth and folktale, where characters take on a life beyond the control of their authors, where they are let loose in communities with their own ideas about how to tell a story. More and more writers are coming out of those communities… publishing their own original books, sometimes to great critical acclaim.”
- Have I ever mentioned how much I adore Waterstones? No? I do; they’re brilliant, and this List of Buzzfeed Books You Have To Read Before You Die is exactly why.
- I love Chuck Wendig’s posts on writing because he drives the point home in an entertaining, uncondescending way. These articles about writing characters and character development are a must-read for aspiring writers.
- “Words. They are tiny, precise, they are substantial. They can be written, or said, and they are to be handled with care. Their impact has no limits. They can mean a thousand little things.” – What being a writer feels like.
- I love this sort of stuff: interactive map showing how words change as we travel across Europe.
- Ever wished you could work as a celebrity’s PA? Here’s what that’s like.
- 2013 was a pretty eventful year for women: from Malala making a full recovery and addressing the UN, securing her as a strong role model for young women everywhere, to the No More Page 3 campaign taking off, the Everyday Sexism project going viral, and terrible people on Twitter making death threats which helped illustrate how alive sexism really is. Here are the best moments for women in 2013.
- A gorgeous short video by Joe Hanson, animating Richard Feynman’s thoughts on the universe and the interconnectedness of all things. – “A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.”
- As you may or may not know, I write a foodie blog for Bookatable, and here is my latest piece on the Top 10 Fine Dining Restaurants in London. I HAVE to go try Dinner by Heston one of these days!
- Lovely, lovely post by the inimitable Chuck Wendig, on happiness.
- Has BBC’s Sherlock jumped the shark with Season 3? This well-written article explains why it hasn’t.
- If you’re afraid of clowns, you might be interesting in learning about the history and psychology behind that fear. You may also want to scroll past the first image…
- Channel 4 doctored a whole lot of footage in order to make some people living on benefits (for valid reason) seem like a whole bunch of scroungers. Now, these people are receiving death threats; Britain has learnt nothing.
- And, on the subject of threats, if you think that rape threats (which are, unfortunately, the internet’s go-to way of shutting up women who dare to have an opinion) are not a serious matter, then you are a moron.
- Onward to the final final frontier: the human brain. Let’s talk about what optical illusions tell us about ourselves.
- Lizzie Velasquez, born with a rare disease which affects her appearance, and once called ‘The ugliest woman in the world’ by a flock of far uglier internet trolls, gave a speech about beauty and what defines us. This is an absolute must-watch.
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