Putting Stress in Context

I am currently sitting in the university library stressing over an exam I have to sit tomorrow.  In fact, here is proof:

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As I quiver behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature which will lend me no aid tomorrow, and I ponder writing a blog post for the sole purpose of procrastination, I remember the importance of putting into context every stress we face.  This can be done on varying levels.  The most simple, of course, is to convince yourself that your life will continue regardless of the result of the exam.  If I fail tomorrow’s exam I have the possibility of a re-sit.  I’m only in first year so it won’t go towards my final degree.  Even if all fails and I’m forced to drop out of university, I still have my health, my family, my friends, and the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.  And on a deeper level I often remember how tiny a spec I am, inhabiting a marginally larger spec that orbits a still undeniably small spec, unobservable to the mast majority of the known universe.  On this tiny spec alone there are 7 billion people who couldn’t care less whether I pass tomorrow’s exam.

Even on another level, however, I’ve managed to put this stress into perspective, though in a way more difficult to describe.  I stood in front of a mirror yesterday gazing at my face for a number of minutes (yes, this is going somewhere).  In my sleep-deprived state I happened to notice how peculiar many parts of it looked – in particular the eyes.  Maybe it’s just me and my aversion to making eye contact but I’ve never noticed quite how intricate the eye is.  Patterns streak across the iris in a rich array of colours, hazel-blue in my case, like a fiery aurora.  The pupil floats in the centre, a perfect featureless circle showing only my own reflection back through the mirror.  My wonder did not cease here; I noticed, as my eyes twitched to and from the light, the pupil dilating inwards and outwards.  Eager to test this further I shined a torch onto and off the side of my face in slow succession, watching the pupil instinctively react.  It did this like the focusing of a camera lens in a process I could not feel or sense.

What this showed me, beyond a worrying sign of my own vanity, was how amazing it is simple to live.  To be this incredible biological wonder I don’t really understand or even particularly consider on a daily basis.  We’re so absorbed by everyday obsessions – be they work, taxes, socialising, politics and, of course, exams – that I don’t think many people besides biologists and children realise this.  Whatever happens in my exam tomorrow, my mere existence is a true marvel.  This isn’t an excuse to be devoid of motivation or ambition by any means, but I really believe it’s healthy to keep these things in mind.

Okay, stress-fuelled philosophical rambling over.  Back to the textbooks…

Book Blogger Challenge!

I think this is supposed to be done over 15 days but I don’t want to spam my blog full of rather dull posts individually, so I’m gonna collect these together!

Make 15 book related confessions.
Oh, this is actually rather hard.  Um.

  1. I kind of enjoyed Twilight.  Morally abhorrent and dull at times yet felt kind of fresh.  Don’t get me wrong – I still hated the rest of the ‘saga’.
  2. I must have read the Harry Potter books around 8 times.  They’re the reason it took me so long to expand my reading tastes!
  3. I’m not actually that great a fan of Shakespeare.  His language is unparalleled, but some stories – like Othello or Romeo and Juliet – I just find absolutely ridiculous.
  4. Though both are preferable, if forced to choose I would favour plot and characters over a skilled writing style.  Hence why I love The Hunger Games so much.
  5. Adding to this, I really hate a kind of ‘literary elitism’ you can get.  “Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed the book… But I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of literature.”  Isn’t enjoying a book all it needs to be good literature?  Well, that and being thought-provoking, I guess.
  6. I own a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  It was a dubious birthday present!  And has since been on permanent loan to whoever will take it…
  7. When I was 11 I once cursed at a book and got angry at school for making me read it.  I still blush at the memory.
  8. Since 2011 I have been trying to read more books each year than I managed in the preceding year.  My 2013 target is currently 4o books, and I’m on track – having tallied 21 thus far!
  9. I find much Victorian literature extremely difficult to get through.  There’s just something in the writing style that dulls my imagination.  Though I’ve yet to try Dickens.
  10. I talk about books way too much.  I generally mention one or another in every conversation I have!  It must get so irritating.
  11. The longest story I’ve ever written is 36,000 words, when I was 14 – almost a novel!  Of course I read it now and regret everything.  Now I struggle to even reach 1,000 words – though I’ve recently begun a writing régime that will hopefully rectify that.
  12. I sometimes wonder whether I like the idea of reading books more than the actual reading.  This is usually shattered when I find a truly engrossing book, but that doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
  13. My limitations bother me.  Reading 40 books a year may seem like a lot but it’s barely a fraction of those published in one month, let alone all of human history.  It saddens me that I’ll never get close to reading everything out species has produced.
  14. 9 times out of 10 I would rather read a good book than go to a party or attend most social gatherings.  Of course, a social gathering where you read or discuss books is best of all!
  15. [REMOVED AS A VIOLATION OF RULE 1]

What’s your bedtime reading ritual?
I usually try to read a bit as I lay down in bed, but sometimes I’m too tired and skip the reading bit.  I used to use this as my sole time for reading but I’ve since tried to find time throughout the day, as some texts are just too difficult to read when that tired.

Who are your blogging BFFs?
I’m afraid I’m too reclusive to have made any blogging friends yet!  Though there are a number of blogs I regularly look at and enjoy reading.

What’s the last book you flung across the room?
The last book I *wanted* to fling across the room was Fight Club, but unfortunately it was a borrowed copy.

Recommend a tear jerker
I’ve never cried a book, however I once witnessed a friend cry at the ending of The Road so I guess that’s a proven facilitator of tears!

Describe how you shop for books.
I’m a bit of a scrooge so I tend to mainly go for second-hand bookshops or borrow form libraries.  When I’m older and [hopefully] wealthier I intend to buy lots of books to keep the industry going!

Talk about your blogging quirks.
Do I have any blogging quirks?  My blogs are pretty simply, actually – I really just write down my thoughts and ideas on various topics and leave it at that.  I suppose you could say I sometimes have a thing for unnecessary figures and details, especially when it comes to elections.  And there are select topics I like to rant about given even the vaguest opportunity *cough* First Past the Post *cough*.

Write 15 bullet points of things that appeal to you on blogs.
You’re obsessed with the number 15!

  1. Simply discussing things which interest me: generally books, politics, astronomy or traveling.
  2. A clear, coherent writing style.
  3. Also a semi-sensible writing style.  Humour can really aid a blog but one which drives in too many jokes or forces an ‘attitude’ leave me cold.
  4. Updating regularly – don’t create the appearance of being dead.
  5. Not too regular updating, though – blogs which post more than perhaps twice a day get tiring quickly.
  6. Trying to encourage debate.  Either through polls or questions, ones which make the viewer feel welcome to comment.
  7. A nice design – not too cluttered.
  8. A detailed ‘about me’ page.  Perhaps this is my nosy nature coming out but I like to know a bit about the person behind the blog.  Though it doesn’t matter all that much – I also respect the right to privacy.
  9. Writing from a fascinating country like Iran or Egypt.
  10. Conversely, writing from my own country – either Scotland or the UK.
  11. I naturally tend to veer towards bloggers of my own age – I feel intimidated and inadequate around older, more experienced people – though if the quality is good enough I certainly won’t ignore blogs not written by my peers.
  12. Charitable or humanitarian support – from groups like Amnesty International or projects such as Kiva.org, I enjoy seeing humanity working as one for the benefit of us all.
  13. This sounds terrible, but blogs which have the same opinions as I do.  Like everyone, I like to read things which confirm my pre-existing biases.  That said, it’s fascinating when a particular blogger who I know has similar views to me posts something I completely disagree with, because then I can’t just dismiss the idea as being propaganda for an alternative ideology and am forced to reconsider my views.
  14. Blogs which don’t try to find more things to say than they can think of.  Like this current question is making me do.
  15. Blogs which end segments well.  Also unlike this.

Why do you blog about books?
Because I love books!  And I love talking/writing about books!  And as an attempt to reduce my raving towards Real People, I guess.

How do you choose what book to read next?
I actually have a quite complex system for this.  It goes: “home fiction, library fiction, home non-fiction, very old book; library fiction, home fiction, library non-fiction.”  This way, over a cycle of 7 books I’ll read a mixture of books from both my home shelf and the library but also a rough 2:1 ratio of fiction:non-fiction.  The actual book itself: I try to choose a different genre than the one I read before and I informally alternate between authors I know and those I do not.

Show off!  5 of your best blog posts.
Hm…

  1. Democracies in the World by far is the most popular post I’ve made (it’s been a bit butchered by my recent attempts to remove copyrighted images; I’ll need to fix that).
  2. I’m really pleased with my literary analysis in Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis.
  3. Death on Mars is also quite ‘popular’ and one of my better cosmology posts.
  4. Syria: Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War is one of my better posts on international relations, back before I became too exasperated with the situation in Syria to keep updated with it.
  5. Problems with First Past the Post – see above…

How do you fight blogger fatigue?
What is blogger fatigue?  My own?  I generally enjoy writing and blogging – and it’s a less scary distraction from writing fiction – so don’t experience it all that much.  Unless you mean the fatigue of my readers?  In which case, I fail miserably.

Describe one under-appreciated book EVERYONE should read.
There’s many books that fit this category but my decision is easily J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.  I awarded it the position of being my 5th favourite book of 2012 and it really is more special than most critics would have you believe.

Tell us your deal breakers.
Uh… I don’t understand this question!  If someone says they don’t read then I tend to break all deals I’d previously made with them… ?

Who are your book blogging mentors.
I wouldn’t say I have mentors, but there’s a few book bloggers I enjoy following – The Bookshelf of Emily J, to name one.

Well, that was 40 minutes I’ll never get back!

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?

Brief University Post: Glasgow

I might be quiet on the blog this week, because I’m spending a week touring the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St. Andrews to help me in the final decision of choosing a place.

Today we went to look at the University of Glasgow.  This was my first proper look at the city of Glasgow, let alone the university.  Glasgow suffers from a reputation of experiencing high crime, high poverty and low standards of living.  Although we only passed through the town center and the university, and didn’t go near some of the more deprived areas I believe to exist in the east end, I saw nothing to back up this reputation.  Glasgow is a beautiful, simply laid out (so square-shaped!), vibrant city which I enjoyed visiting.  We only breezed through, but I’d certainly like to make another visit one day.  Or, who knows, possibly even live there.

The university itself was wonderful.  Such an academic, lively hub.  The architecture is awe-inspiring, with grand staircases climbing the walls, entire halls of pillars and exquisite ‘quadrangle’ courtyards.  Every inch is steeped in deep history.  I was enthused by talks I received on the English Literature course, and on the Arts faculty in general.  However, I wasn’t largely impressed with the university library.  Oh well.

I’m in Edinburgh now.  Tomorrow I shall visit the University of Edinburgh, and on Friday it’s St. Andrews.  Still completely undecided… I guess I shouldn’t complain at the choice!