Reading to Alleviate Stress

DSC_0803Only a short post today because I am still recovering from a stomach bug that I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy.  Being confined to the house for several days has, however, meant that I have had plenty of time to complete the first week of an online course that I think many of you would enjoy.  On the FutureLearn platform, the University of Warwick are offering a module entitled Literature and Mental Health.  The idea is to explore the way in which literature can be used to understand and help alleviate times of emotional stress and mental illness.  During the past week we have looked at poems such as Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree, Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop and Arnold’s Dover Beach. The highlight, however, was a half hour discussion between Jonathan Bate and Stephen Fry about the way in which poetry works and how that is important in respect of stress relief.  It was far more informative than many a university lecture I’ve sat through.

The course is going on to consider heartbreak, bereavement, trauma, depression and bipolar disorder, and ageing and dementia.  Although it has already started you are usually able to join late and the material is there online for you to catch up in your own time. This is something that I think a lot of my blogging friends would really enjoy and it would be worth people’s while to check it out even if you didn’t go through with it as it costs nothing to sign up to.  My only reservation is that there isn’t a section on poetry to alleviate stomach bugs.  My own thought on the subject is that whatever else they need to be short!

Weekly Fragments ~ November 15th

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fI’ve had a rather difficult week in some respects and so I haven’t really got as much done as I’d hoped I would the last time I wrote one of these Fragments.  I could really do with a picture of someone tearing their hair out rather than sitting reading as if there was all the time in the world to pour over the newspaper before gently contemplating what the world has to offer after that second cup of tea.  In part this was my own fault because for reasons I will tell you about in a later post I took myself off to London on Tuesday and by Wednesday had to recognise that this is a trip I no longer have the necessary stamina to undertake.  I still haven’t completely recharged my batteries and as a consequence I am yet again behind in my reading.

I have almost managed to catch up with the lectures for my Historical Fiction MOOC and will find some time later today to go over to our discussion site and add to the comments there.  I’m still bitterly disappointed by the choice of books set for this course and eventually gave up on Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  Life is just too short and my time too precious to spend it reading a book that simply doesn’t catch my attention, especially as I had to work my way through another such novel for a reading group last week.  I said last time that I wouldn’t have picked up Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared off my own bat but was willing to give it a try because so many people had said it was worth reading.  Well, I’m sorry but I have to disagree.  When I think of all the excellent fiction there is out there just waiting for someone to come along and translate it I despair that novels like this get picked up and accorded so much attention. Given that it is advertised as an International Best Seller I recognise that I must be in the minority here, but to be truthful there wasn’t that much enthusiasm for it in the group as a whole when we met on Wednesday to discuss it.  Perhaps we all had the wrong sort of sense of humour.

I was also disappointed with the crime novel I’d picked out to leaven the work load.  I posted about Val McDermid’s latest Tony Hill novel, Cross and Burn, last weekend and explained there how I felt that this book had come out too soon and was still in need of a lot of work.  Those of you who know me will be aware that this is an increasingly anguished cry of mine because I’m convinced that popular authors are being pushed into publishing one book a year for the Christmas market whether said book is ready or no. This one wasn’t.  

However, just in case you think I’m in a real grump (I am, but I’m trying to find a bright spot) I did also read the new Ben Aaronovitch Broken Homes. If you haven’t read Aaronovitch’s crime fiction it’s rather hard to explain what it’s about.  I once saw it described as a cross between the police procedural and Harry Potter and that isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. This is the fourth in the series and I’m telling you now that if you don’t start at the beginning with Rivers of London you don’t stand any chance whatsoever of understanding what is going on, but I think it’s worth the journey.  As you get to know Peter Grant, a young PC who suddenly finds himself caught up in the London manifestation of a mythical and magical underworld linked through their alchemical heritage (the London practitioners are known as Issacs after Newton) to the past history of the capital, you learn with him just how much of that past is still potent and influential.  Of course, you are going to have to suspend your disbelief as you meet the spirits of the various London rivers and watch as Peter does battle with the Faceless Man, but at the same time Aaronovitch manages to conjure up the essence of London as it is today and patch the two together seamlessly.  I suspect these novels are an acquired taste but one that I am definitely cultivating.

So, what is on the cards for this week.  Well, I have to read the next book for my Historical Fiction course, Geraldine Brooks, The Year of Wonder. This is about Eyam, the small village in Derbyshire whose inhabitants agreed to seal the village off in 1666 to prevent the plague from spreading to neighbouring settlements thus condemning themselves to almost certain death.  I’ve read a number of Brooks other novels and enjoyed them, so I’m hoping that I’ll fare better with this than with the previous two selections.  However, I know Eyam very well and so I am going to be hypercritical, I’m afraid.  This is a true story and those courageous people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, so I’m going to be demanding a lot where this set text is concerned.

Then I have my next book group read to finish for Wednesday.  This is Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk, the first of his Cairo trilogy and a work influential in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I’m about a quarter of the way through and I can see that it is a very well written book, but I’m finding it hard to sympathise with Mahfouz’s portrayal of Cairo society during the First World War.  I accept that it was a world where the men got their way in everything and ‘respectable’ women were incarcerated in the house for pretty much the totality of their lives, existing only to serve their husband’s will, but it does make it hard to sympathise with any of the characters and The Bears are having to frequently put their paws in their ears to block out my vitriolic comments as to what I would do to the main male protagonist should I get anywhere near him with a sharp knife.  I suspect that this is one of those cases where you need to read the whole trilogy to really appreciate the role of any one of the three books, but whether I shall have time to do that in the near future I very much doubt.

Where lighter reading is concerned I have the latest in Laura Wilson’s Ted Stratton series to begin.  The Riot is another London crime novel, this time set in 1958 and centred around the Notting Hill Riots of that period which grew out of increasing racial tension in the capital and the rise of Rachmanism – so maybe not so light after all.  The thing I love about this series is the detailed way in which Wilson captures the social history of the time.  The first book, Stratton’s War, is one of the best evocations of the London Blitz that I know as well as being a first rate crime novel.

And only one theatre visit this week, Tartuffe at the Rep this afternoon.  I don’t know much about the play or the production so I’m going with an open mind.  Some you win and some you lose – that’s my philosophy where the theatre is concerned.  I’m hoping this one will be a winner.

Hamlet ~ MOOC

rolf-richardson-hamlet-statue-gower-memorial-stratford-upon-avon-warwickshire-england-united-kingdom-europeJust a quick post this morning to draw your attention to a new MOOC that is starting on the 13th of January.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and Culture is the first literature course to be offered by the UK MOOC platform, FutureLearn. It is being run by the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute which is part of the same University School to which I belong. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of the production values that will be involved, although if you take a look at the introductory video which you can find here then that seems to be encouraging.  However, what I can speak to is the quality of the scholarship that will have gone into the materials.  I work with these people week in and week out and I can assure you that they are amongst the leading Shakespeare scholars in the world; you won’t get better teaching anywhere. What is more, it appears from the clips that have been made available that actors from the RSC may also be involved.  The actress reading To be or not to be is Pippa Nixon, who is currently playing Ophelia and Jonathan Slinger, the current Hamlet, is also featured.

I haven’t yet sampled a FutureLearn MOOC so I don’t know how far they’ve got with developing areas such as assessment and discussion.  I do know that they themselves say they have some way to go and acknowledge that they are still learning.  You shouldn’t let that put you off, though.  This is a real opportunity to work with absolute experts.  What is more, those of us who have been struggling with the set texts for the Coursera Historical Fiction MOOC can take heart from the fact that not only is there just one text set for this module but also that it was definitely not chosen simply because the author was available to come in for a discussion.  I suppose it’s just about conceivable that someone nipped down the road, sat by the grave and asked Shakespeare whether or not Hamlet is ever really mad, but on balance I doubt it.

I’ve already signed up for this and if anyone else is thinking of doing so and would like to get together a small independent study group then I would be happy to host it.  Some of us have already done that with earlier MOOCs and it’s been a really good experience.  If you are interested then leave a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.