Oroonoko

Oroonoko or the Royal Slave was the first novel to be published in the U.K by a woman. Aphra Behn was one of only three known female playwright’s at the time it was written in the 16th Century. Little is known of her life, but it is believed she travelled to Suriname in South America, with her family as a young woman, where the novel is set.

Oroonoko is an African prince who is betrayed by his grandfather and sold into slavery, ironically a trade he commenced in himself before his capture. The book is considered a pre-cursor to the fiction novel as it was written as a biography with no dialogue. Behn probably did take many of the incidences in the novel from her own experiences, but like all novels she probably developed and embellished those experiences to make the story more dramatic. A technique I am sure all fiction writers do.

This is a small book, more a novella really. In its time it would have been considered quite revolutionary in its depiction of the negative implications to the slave trade. At the same time Behn does not strictly condemn slavery as an institution, so engraved is the idea of the importance of slavery to the economy in those days. The prince Oroonoko and his love, Imoinda are described as beautiful with immense integrity. Their beauty however is always in comparison to white people, but the racism of the story must be understood within the time it was written.

The ending of Oroonoko in Suriname is so shocking that I doubt it would ever be written today (spoiler alert). Oroonoko realises that they will never be set free and his unborn child will be born into slavery. He therefore makes the decision to kill his heavily pregnant wife, who agrees to her own murder, believing her death by her husband’s hands to be a cultural sign of his devotion. His attempts at revenge and eventual suicide fails as he weakens from eight days by his wife’s corpse. Instead, Oroonoko is strung up and his nose chopped off, then both of his ears and arm is sliced off too, while he quietly smokes a pipe. A form of passive resistance and pride. Until his smoking arm is cut off and he promptly dies!

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The Diary of Anne Frank

“People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion.”

This book, like many books, has been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time. I am pretty sure I read this book when I was younger, but I cannot remember. As a teenager growing up in Germany, I do remember how sick I was of learning about the second world war. I loved history, but I wanted to read about the history of the whole world, of the conquistador’s, the blood-letting religion of the Inca’s or the stories of the Pharaoh’s.

My father, who was a military man, deemed it necessary that family holidays were situated at places important to war memorials. I am the only person I know who visited Hitler’s bunker and Eagle’s nest while on holiday as a young girl. I still remember the gold elevator at the Eagle’s nest and the bunkers where he was said to kill himself with Eva Braun. Because of my father’s position in the army I am also one of the few people to have been fortunate enough as a child to have been allowed to visit East Berlin before the wall came down.

I was about fourteen when we visited Auschwitz. I was too young to really understand the atrocities that went on there, but now I am older I feel privileged that a lot of my holidays as a child were so steeped in history. Reading Anne Frank’s diary now, as an adult, held so much of my attention and admiration. Not that the diary entries were amazing, but they were so raw and real for this little girl and it is an amazing privilege to be able to read Anne’s thoughts of her time during the war.

Before I finished this book I did some research on what happened to Anne and her family. After reading so many passionate entries about her dreams of becoming a writer it was heartbreaking that she and her sister, Margot died in a concentration camp just weeks before the camp was released and just months before the end of the war. I wanted her to hang on, to live and be all of the things you know she could have been. Reading such a personal account of someone’s life during the war, especially someone so young, it makes me aware just how much the world has missed out on from all those pointless deaths. Who knows what many of those people could have become if they had survived? Thinking about this when the diary abruptly ends on the 1st of August, knowing that after this last diary entry Anne and her family are found and taken away, made me so sad.

If she had lived, Anne’s jumbled up writing would have developed and matured. But at least Anne did become a published writer, and her diary helped to document the people’s lives during the war and has therefore become a relevant historical document in its own right, and it has also caught the imagination of generations of readers. Anne would have been happy about this.

The Gathering

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“People do not change, they are merely revealed.”
Anne Enright, The Gathering

The Gathering is the fourth novel by Irish writer Anne Enright, and the first book I have read of hers. It has been my intention to read more Irish literature and you couldn’t get more stereotypically Irish than this book. Veronica and Liam – two siblings from a Catholic family of 12 children. As Veronica travels from Dublin to Brighton to claim her brothers body she recalls bits and pieces of her childhood with her favourite brother.

It was difficult to churn through Anne Enright’s clunky narrative or even warm to the protagonist Veronica, but I did enjoy reading the parts on Veronica’s thoughts on her marriage. I wonder how important our role is as a mother, just how much are we actually needed and how much of what we do is down to pure laziness from our children. When Veronica’s brother, Liam dies she knows that everything will go on with out her. A family death giving her an automatic ‘hall pass’ from her life, and for a short while she can flee from the suffocating responsibilities of a wife and mother and take some time to gather her thoughts.

“There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest. And the girls will be picked up from school, and dropped off again in the morning. Your eldest daughter can remember her inhaler, and your youngest will take her gym kit with her, and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.”
Anne Enright, The Gathering

The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and yet I couldn’t wait for the book to end. I am not a reader who normally shy’s away from gritty stoicism in my book choice, so why did I struggle through this book? It may be because the depressing themes pervading the book seemed to have no point and no summarisation at all. The problem is nothing really happens. In the end there is no story. The Gathering is a well written book, but it is a book written for writers rather than readers. Sometimes I think writers forget why they are writing a book, they write to be read after all and a reader wants a good story; to be entertained, thrilled and maybe even appalled a little, but they want a good story and The Gathering just doesn’t deliver.

That is why a book like The Gathering can have such disparate reviews, on one end of the scale are readers who simply enjoy a good story, the way it is written can easily be forgotten if it is a memorable and enjoyable read and on the other end are the high brow readers who pick a book apart for its structure and prose and the idea of an enjoyable plot line becomes lost and largely unimportant in their pursuit for that elusive of all things, ‘the perfect sentence’.

 

Aegina, Greece

I fell in love with a small island in Greece while reading a book that ended its tale in a small island in Greece. This made the island all the more special for me, as if I was meant to be here at this time. Aegina is a short boat ride away from Athens, it is everything every guide book has ever promised you, or so the rich of Athens will tell you, who come here to get away from the city.

It is easy to forget just how smothered we are in the UK, everything is set out for you and made safe, and yet here, ironically in another island you can breath again, you are free. In Aegina you can drive around tiny cobbled lanes, skirting around the stray white nondescript cats of Aegina and the fish caught that morning, you can park your hired scooter or quad-bike (the choice is yours) any where you like, never worrying about fishing for the last bit of change out of your pocket for parking.

What is there to do but sit back and relax? Explore the island in your own time, driving past giant cactuses and fields of pistachio trees. Visit the majestic Temple of Athena, drive up the long winding mountain to walk around the ancient Greek ruins. Pistachio’s are grown on the island and celebrated every September with the festival of Fistiki (Pistachio). Aegina produces every type of thing you can think of to do with a pistachio, and it is a delight to wonder around the island and find them all! My personal favourite being pistachio butter, very much like peanut butter.

I am looking forward to returning to the island of Aegina, a rare feeling for me as I am usually enthralled but always eager to move on. But, I would also like to see more of Greece. To stay in Athens and Thessaloniki.

 

And the Mountains Echoed in Greece

“All my life I have lived like an Aquarium fish in the safety of a glass tank, behind a barrier as impenetrable as it has been transparent. I have been free to observe the glimmering world on the other side, to picture myself in it, if I like. But I have always been contained, hemmed in, by the hard, unyielding confines of the existence that Baba has constructed for me, at first knowingly, when I was young, and now guilelessly, now that he is fading day by day. I think I have grown accustomed to the glass and am terrified that when it breaks, when I am alone, I will spill out into the wide open unknown and flop around, helpless, lost, gasping for breath.”

Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed

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Each of us are weighed down, burdened by our own particular set of responsibilities, a brand unique to ourselves, our situations and our lives. My own responsibilities I have worn as a heavy chain around my neck for too long. This is not to state that I choose to be free of my responsibilities, a choice that is too reckless, too heartless and remote a decision I could ever make. But I do have a choice to live with my burdens. A choice that is not to accept a weight that encumbers our lives, but a choice to accommodate that weight, shift it a little on your back so that the weight is less cumbersome.

This is a new skill I feel I will have to practice to get right, and yet a skill that is essential to not just survive in life, but to be happy. I must learn to enjoy the days when the weight of responsibility grounds me, but make sure I have the days when I am free to move, to explore. If I am careful to plan for those days, it is easier to enjoy the days I am forced to be still.

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In Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, the stories move the reader constantly along Afghanistan, France and Greece, through sixty years of relationships, often so close that their lives are a burden to each other, others remote, but all touching and shaping their lives in amazing ways. This is life; inescapable and alluring.

Towards the end of the book is a touching story of the little girl Thalia, who was mauled by a dog at 5 just years old. Her story is set in an island in Greece, and I read this part of the book while staying at Aegina, another island in Greece, thinking about the people who have touched my life, wondering if those people who seemed so remote at the time may have had the biggest influence.

The Cambridge ‘Time-Eater’

My first impression of Cambridge is the staggering amount of bikes. I left with a bizarre feeling of wanting to cycle to work in a suit. I hate bikes. Then I realised cycling is no real effort here as Cambridge is very flat!

Instead, we booked a leisurely punt trip down the river Cam. My friend and I agreed that our punter seemed the most competent and had the best local knowledgable on the water, and for an added bonus we had the best seats on the boat.

We floated under the Bridge of Sighs, a Grade I listed building, and apparently a favourite of Queen Victoria’s. The bridge was built in 1831 and named after the bridge of the same name in Venice. Myth has it that the bridge of Sighs was originally named for the sighs of the condemned as they went from the court to the prison over the bridge, later to be emulated by students as they cross from their accommodation at St Johns college to receiving their grades on the other side of the river.

Looking for a fantastic more authentic, less touristy, momentum of your time in Cambridge? Keep an eye out for artists Signature JT outside Kings College selling handmade wooden landscape designs of Cambridge skyline.

We came across an amazing clock outside the Taylor library at Corpus Christi college. The Corpus Clock with the Chronophage mounted on top, literally ‘eating time’. The inventor Dr Taylor told BBC News, “I wanted to depict that time is a destroyer – once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.” The Chronophage is a gothic beast that reminds you that your time is ending every second so don’t waste it!