Post-apocalyptic & Dystopian Reads #4

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Lev AC Rosen
Rising sea levels have left a future New York over twenty stories underwater, now a landscape of the towers left behind connected by bridges and waterways. We follow a private investigator as a simple job leads to a much more complicated outcome. I wanted to like this book, but I really struggled through it. I just didn't warm to any of the characters, and I had to force myself to pick up the book after realising I'd not read any for weeks. Personally, I saw far more potential in the actual setting than in the detective plot.

Kenneth Calhoun
Black Moon features a premise which I hadn't come across until fairly recently: sleeplessness. Initially insomnia didn't seem such a terrifying prospect compared to some other post-apocalyptic scenarios. However, Calhoun really plays on the fears and irrationalities of sleep deprivation; the anger the sleepless feel towards sleepers for their ability to rest was frighteningly easy to empathise with. It's dark and violent, but it's also poetic (the way Calhoun portrayed the progressively disintegrating syntax of the afflicted was especially interesting) and engaging; I just wish it had tied itself up a little better.

H. G. Wells
Strictly speaking, The War of the Worlds is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic, but nevertheless it's a classic in the genre with a serious reputation. A meteor lands just outside Victorian London, drawing a slightly strangely unpeturbed crowd - until the mysterious creatures reveal themselves to be dangerous. After reading so many contemporary novels recently, the language and tone of The War of the Worlds was refreshing. Despite knowing the plot (as we all likely do) it was a great read, and I even forgave the happily-ever-after(ish) ending which I'd usually hate. Aside from the storytelling, it was also quite illuminating in terms of the geography of the late nineteenth century city.

Octavia E. Butler
Rather than a catastrophic illness or a nuclear war, Octavia E. Butler bases the first of her two-novel series on a quieter, more insidious disaster - the slow collapse of civil society through the neglect of environmental and economic problems. Our protagonist Lauren is relatively lucky in her gated community, but she also suffers from an unusual affliction: hyperempathy, causing her to be severely affected by the pain of others. I found the world Butler created frightening (and worryingly close to a future I can imagine), and I was genuinely interested in the characters, but I mostly cringed my way through Lauren's writing and just couldn't get behind her new faith, 'Earthseed'. However, I am going to give the sequel, The Parable of the Talents, a go.

John Christopher (Samuel Youd)
The idea of a virus which kills off all grass species could seem relatively innocuous, until you consider the fact that they make up a huge part of natural habitats across the world, and make up over 70% of all crops and a fundamental part of the world's economy. John Custance must take his family across an increasingly apocalyptic England to reach his brother's potato farm, hopefully a safe haven. I feel like this book has been really overlooked in the post-apocalyptic genre, which is a shame because although I rolled my eyes a little at some of the gender-based comments, it's fantastic. It has been compared to Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids in the sense that the disaster is plant-based, but this is a darker, less cosy kind of catastrophe. It also left me thinking a lot more closely about the food systems we currently rely on.

Visiting Deal, Kent

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January was mainly a total whirlwind. With my museum contracts finishing just before Christmas, I've spent most of my days working on Master's degree related things - essays, new courses, dissertation ideas - and planning for the next stage. After one of my latest deadlines, we decided to use our Saturday to explore some of the Kentish coastline and headed over to Deal. We took the dog for a very cold walk along the beach; she's still not quite got a handle on the sea, so she got a bit of a shock from a large wave! Beautiful Middle Street makes up Deal's Old Town, and we spent a good hour wandering from pastel house to pastel house, talking about which of them we'd buy if we magically got hold of a few hundred grand. I fell in love with some little cottages on a side street and all the nautical-themed door knockers. A trip to the High Street provided us some local apple and rhubarb juice for the drive home, and then when we got too cold we headed to the dog-friendly Royal Hotel for pies and sandwiches (and a sausage for Angel). The weather held up perfectly all day, treating us to clear skies and a lovely sunset to watch from the pier along with the fishermen. This year I'm hoping to make more time for little trips out like this!

Bodleian Treasures: 24 Pairs

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

When I visited Oxford last year, we managed to squeeze in the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of the History of Science, and the Museum of Natural History. They were all beautiful, but I knew I couldn't miss squeezing in a trip to the Bodleian Library, and the Bodleian Treasures exhibit in the Weston Library. This was a fairly fleeting visit as we had a lot to pack in to our two days, and there are twelve million items in the collection, so the exhibition 'Bodleian Treasures: 24 Pairs' was a perfect introduction to some of the star items they hold. Pairing together items whose connections might not be immediately obvious is a really nice way to get visitors to begin thinking creatively about the history of our written culture and the many connections which exist between the objects produced by it.

I loved all of the items, but I had a few favourites. It was amazing to see a section of Mary Shelley's notebooks, filled with her handwritten draft of Frankenstein; Shelley is one of my favourite authors and it's amazing to think of her writing away in Geneva in the early nineteenth century. Also on display are papyrus fragments of the work of another woman writer, Sappho, whose poetry was largely lost but was recovered in excavations of rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchus (along with some of the most important Christian manuscripts ever discovered). Medieval illumination will always entrance me, and M.S. Bodl. 764 is a beautiful example of a 13th century bestiary, probably my favourite type of medieval text - a kind of religious version of a natural history textbook! I also really enjoyed the inclusion of various kinds of decorative bindings, from gilt gauffered book edges to the spectacular bible given to Queen Elizabeth I, covered in red velvet embroidered with gold and silver.

The current exhibition is on until the 19th February, and then it will be filled with new treasures from mid-March. If you're interested in looking at more of the amazing books, manuscripts and ephemera held at the Bodleian, a lot of their collection is digitised beautifully. I'd also highly recommend following @bodleianlibs on Twitter for book-related fun (for more on their great social media strategy, see this article by Adam Koszary!)

FIND 'BODLEIAN TREASURES: 24 PAIRS' AT: The Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG

The new Design Museum

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The new Design Museum opened last year (where have those couple of months gone?) but it wasn't until this month that I managed to get all the way over to Kensington to have a proper look! I had spent the morning at Blissets Binders having a tour of the workshop with some of my classmates, and it was only a few stops on the tube, so I decided to pay a visit.

The museum is now housed in the former Commonwealth Institute building, originally constructed in the 1960s and now Grade II listed. The result of the museum's work with John Pawson is a really exciting space which is fit to showcase the best of design. I love that they worked with the existing fanned concrete roof, making it a beautiful feature. The sheer amount of space is so impressive - it really makes the museum a social space rather than just a display. On a freezing Thursday afternoon it was packed with people enjoying the (very tasty) food at the cafe, relaxing in the hall, playing in the fountains and checking out the displays. As well as the new permanent display, there are two paid exhibitions and free displays, plus the 'designers in residence', showcasing some really creative responses to the 2016 theme, 'Open'. A particularly interesting development is the huge space set aside for learning, something which a lot of museum learning departments would love to see! I'm really excited to see how the learning and public programme at the museum develop in their new space.

I didn't have a lot of time on my hands, so I spent it exploring the permanent display, 'Designer Maker User'. It is a really interesting look at design through three central roles, and covers an astonishing array of design from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It's exciting to see a focus on the huge impact design has had on social issues: from the 'Trillion Dollar Campaign' bringing attention to the hyperinflation experienced in Zimbabwe and the 'Bliar' placard designed by David Gentleman for the 2003 protest against the Iraq war, or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's development of fitted kitchens which aided women's emancipation and the fantastic e-Nable community producing 3D-printed prosthetics for those who can't afford them. Also featured is a crowd-sourced wall of important design objects - a fascinating example of how ubiquitous certain designs have become in our society! This free display alone is worth your time and your tube ticket.

FIND THE DESIGN MUSEUM AT: 224-238 Kensington High Street, London, W8 6AG

Audley End, Essex

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Every year, my birthday falls on the August bank holiday, and in my small semi-rural hometown (village) that means one thing: the agricultural fair. I've grown used to my birthday being spent sloshing - or in sunnier years, strolling - around the fields, looking at pens of cows, admiring piglets and discussing the results of vegetable contests. It's not very glamorous or exciting, but I looked forward to it every year. Since moving to the city a few years ago, I don't always make it back, and this year was the same. Instead, we jumped in the car and headed a little further into Essex for a trip to conjure up some of the countryside feeling. Our destination: Audley End.

Built in the early seventeenth century, the mansion took the place of the earlier Walden Abbey, and was used by the first Earl of Suffolk to entertain King James I (who later imprisoned the Earl in the Tower of London for embezzlement!) After a brief stint as a holiday home for Charles I when it was at its most massive, successive owners greatly reduced its size - until Sir John Griffin Griffin, who promptly stuck a load back on again. Photography isn't allowed in the house, but it's certainly a sight to be seen; Griffin, plus the later third Lord Baybrooke, both had somewhat eccentric tastes. The Jacobean style wood-panelled Great Hall contrasts quite starkly with the Roman painted Little Drawing Room. I absolutely loved the extensive natural history collection, with all kinds of taxidermy and fossils, on display throughout the house.

The weekend we paid our visit was the World War Two Weekend, so the whole place was packed with people enjoying 1940s music and fashion, watching army demonstrations and ration cooking in the kitchens. Even the stable block had been taken over with soldiers in character, loitering on antique cars and explaining field medicine. It was a little busier than I'd planned for - no quiet photographs for me! - but had such a great atmosphere. The beautiful walled kitchen garden and the greenhouses especially are not to be missed.

FIND AUDLEY END AT: off London Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4JF