Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker

Have you ever thought of yourself as an 'avid reader'? Are you addicted to stories and narrative? And are you interested in structure and analysis? If so, you must read the book I am (still) reading, The Seven Basic Plots - Why we tell stories, by Christopher Booker.

I grew up on stories. As soon as I could read, I read everything I could get my hands on, especially fiction, and I kept that habit all the way through school. Even during my Uni years it wasn't uncommon for me to become completely engrossed in a series of books (to the detriment of my study, unfortunately.)

This has meant I have become quite a narrative-driven person. Everything is a story, in that it has characters, events, consequences. Even my study of medicine has been story-driven. Why does this happen in the body? What is it used for? Every part of the body has a function, so that the relevant molecules flow from food to flesh to waste. Every microorganism has its own story of survival, invasion or elimination. The textbooks I relate to most easily are the ones that tell me the best stories, so that I can just sit down and read them. (I've never been able to study anatomy, unfortunately. Or spend any amount of time on a reference book.) And I love case presentations.

As soon as I saw the book The Seven Basic Plots and flicked idly through it, I had to have it. A detailed analysis of the structure of stories? (The use of the word 'plots' here is a little arguable.) I was in heaven. I'm now on page 630-ish of 730-odd. And, as is immediately apparent even from a brief flick-through, the book is all it set out to be, and much, much more.

Yes, plots have been recycled, reinvented and reused throughout the history of literature. The author has looked deeper, though, and found seven basic ways in which a story can be structured. They are, in the order that he examines them, "Overcoming the Monster", "Rags to Riches", "The Quest", "Voyage and Return", "Comedy", "Tragedy" and "Rebirth". (Yes, there are exceptions, and he deals with those too in this book, a highly-structured thesis.) These, of course, have been combined and recombined countless times, and he gives many examples to support his ideas. There are 350-odd individual stories referenced in the book, from the oldest known (the Epic of Gilgamesh) to the ultra-modern (Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone), with references to the literature and storytelling culture of every era between then and now. And it's not only the written word that he examines - oral culture, theatre, propaganda, movies and television also fall into the scope of the book.

What he has done, further, is to look at the stories in terms of the archetypal figures who appear in them, and how the plot is shaped around the relation of the hero/heroine to each of these figures. I guess it's not too surprising that he has based these around the Jungian archetypes - the Mother, the Father, the Teacher, the Alter-Ego, the Anima/Animus, the Tempter/Temptress, the Child, the Ego, the Self, the 'masculine' qualities, the 'feminine' qualities. These are supposed to be the figures of our subconscious appearing in our dreams, and it would be natural for them to appear in stories, an outwardly-projected extension of our subconscious. I wasn't that familiar with Jungian psychology myself - all I really knew was that he was a student of Freud, and that Freud was that psychoanalyst preoccupied with sex :P But as these archetypes are explained in this book - as an explanation of the figures who appear and reappear in stories throughout the ages - the author's arguments make a lot of sense.

Now, all of this analysis takes some time. 350-odd pages of quite small print on a largish page. At the same time, it is surprisingly easy to read. Of course, this is in part because he stops so often to tell us the plot of yet another story, before weaving it in to his overall theme. This plethora of stories had me completely engrossed. But it cannot be denied that he is a highly-skilled writer. I was not surprised, when I looked up his biography an hour ago, to find that he has been a lifelong journalist. And, despite his age (more on that later), he writes in very contemporary language - as you'd expect from anyone wanting a book published in 2003.

And then ... And then, at the halfway point of the book, having completed an analysis of all these plots, he embarks on two even greater endeavours. The first is a study of the progress of literature in the past two hundred years, as these plots have gradually changed, been overtaken by fashions, stereotypes, sentimentalism, sex and violence. For me, this was a very difficult section of the book to read, and I believe that many people will instinctively find it so.

Now, this is not to say that I was offended by the content. The stories themselves ranged from the shocking to the bleak and the pointless, and having read the analysis I am actually inspired to read (or in some cases see) the originals; many of the ones he includes have been lauded as great, groundbreaking works of literature, theatre and film. And the author presents all of these items in a very objective, analytical, impartial manner. He examines our reactions to each, and combines them into his analysis and his theme: the disintegration of our relationship with stories. But his main point rang true with every page - that these stories no longer resonate with our sense of the struggle to become one's own Self, and so each story, in its own way, feels somehow wrong and unresolved.

Finally, after a brief interlude in which he tells how stories relate to the 'real world' and history, he presents a gargantuan chapter on what I think is his final topic: the stories of religion. Here, I will not give away his thesis; although his theory is uncontroversial, I know that religion is quite a sensitive topic with many people. Being an atheist myself, I was very much impressed at his absolutely impartial treatment of a near-comprehensive list of religions and cultures. But it will probably be slightly uncomfortable for any person who adheres to a particular religion to see the roots of their own culture analysed so objectively, especially those which the author shows to be varying from his theme.

All the same, I feel this is the most important part of the book; it is the one which finally prompted me to write all this. The level of understanding of the human psyche he demonstrates is awe-inspiring. You would not tell from his tone of writing that he is in his seventies, but his insight in finding these themes, these values, these relationships, shows the true wisdom obtained only by experience. My idols and role-models have always been those who show such insight, and while they have previously been the Galileos, the scientists of the world, or more recently Terry Pratchett ... this is one man I would really want to meet and shake by the hand. (And then he'd wonder who this shy little girl was, who couldn't express herself properly.)

Yes, in my ideal world everyone would read this book and learn something about themselves, their culture, the history of literature. But of course, the book itself is not accessible to everyone. People may be discouraged by its small print and large size (although many who look inside may find it to be surprisingly readable, as I did). There is extensive use of three- and four-syllable words (sample from one paragraph: incognito, disarray, overshadowed, arrogance, dissipation, infesting, miserably, majesty, massacre, reunited, triumphantly) which may unfortunately rule out a proportion of the population, and then of course there are those who simply are not interested in stories, literature or analysis. I even saw a writer's review complaining about typographical errors and excessive use of the word 'little'. But for the rest of us, I implore you to read this book.

Even if you do not start off sympathetic to the points of view he later proposes, you will find his arguments compelling. Even if you read critically with an eye to his omissions, his elisions and biases, his thesis will still be interesting. Because, readable though it may be, this is a finely-constructed essay building on point after point after point, example after example, theory after theory, to a stunning understanding of the way we tell ourselves who we are.

Monday, 18 February 2008

I've been busy...

getting my life organised. It's taken some effort, but I'm really getting there :) Unfortunately, writing this blog seems to have fallen by the wayside. Probably because I keep procrastinating about what I wanted to write about.

Ahh well. Time to write about something else instead!

This evening I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, and came across a little Japanese supermarket. I wished I'd brought my purse with me (I'd deliberately decided not to) because they sell little tubs of green tea and sesame ice cream! I love Japanese ice-cream flavours.

They're an interesting east-west fusion - while green tea, black sesame, red bean, taro (a kind of purple very starchy turnip), lotus seed and lychee are traditional Asian flavours, dairy is not. Soy milk mixes are a tiny bit more common, but usually you see these flavours on their own - red bean paste or lotus seed paste in buns, red bean sweet soup, black sesame soup dumplings, taro cakes (often more taro, less cake, and no egg), lotus seed cake (ditto), lychee and green tea ice drinks, green tea jelly. But the Japanese have made them into traditional milk-and-egg-base icecreams, and they work really well. Black sesame is the hardest on western palates, but green tea and red bean work really well, and I assume taro would too.


Oh, and in an odd turn of events, I found out that the thing I was so angry about the other week ... I'd attributed to the wrong person. She had nothing to do with it. In fact, it was a guy, who doesn't know me that well at all. I know for a fact he resents me for something I refused once long ago, and I don't particularly care. So I don' t need to pay any attention! So much for the positive effects of anger. Someone mentioned that it gives you tunnel vision ... here, it seems it did.

Well, actually, maybe there have been positive effects after all. I have done a lot of stuff directly sparked by the thoughts I had that night, and none of them have been negative. I certainly haven't done anything to hurt anyone, or anything that I regret. I didn't go speak to her, or him. I have, on the other hand, started some projects which I'm sure, later on, I'll be really proud of. All because I was forced to get creative.

Okay, enough for now! Time to go have dinner.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A couple of weeks ago I begged Smith to take me to go see Sweeney Todd at the movies. We enjoyed it thoroughly. And tonight I bought a recording of the musical, done in 2005 by a Broadway Revival cast, over iTunes. Listened to that and also enjoyed it.

I saw the movie first without knowing much about the plot. Now, I love musicals, but I hate suspense and gore. I'm a scaredy-cat type who, if there is any indication that 'somebody might get hurt!', will hide under the seat with my ears blocked, or leave the area. As a result, I don't watch much TV :P Or at least not the kind of stuff that Smith watches - he likes supernatural themes. I like documentaries and comedian revues.

Anyway, I normally wouldn't see a movie with so much violence and death. But this was a musical, and highly recommended by my type of people (xkcd readers). So I steeled myself, I even read spoilers. (I like to read plot synopses if I have to watch something with suspense, but this time I didn't, so I didn't really know the plot.) However, I knew it was about a barber who kills people, so I was fully prepared for everybody who went anywhere near Johnny Depp to die. This served me well - the couple of people who didn't die were a pleasant surprise :P And for anyone who hasn't seen it and wants to, firstly DO SEE IT ... and secondly, be prepared for blood. Lots and lots of blood. Lots and lots and LOTS of blood. Mostly fake-looking, but hey, that's part of the fun.

And the music was wonderful. The musical itself is by Stephen Sondheim, who also wrote Into The Woods and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the lyrics in West Side Story. The lyrics to Sweeney Todd are fantastically witty, lots of laughs, suitably cutting and cynical in places, and overall the best bit of the movie, even if you can't catch them all. Johnny Depp sang quite well, Helena Bonham Carter did a great job, Sacha Baron Cohen was hilarious and Ed Sanders (the child who played Tobias) just shone. Overall I found the movie to be tremendous fun.

So of course I had to listen to the original. I bought it over iTunes tonight, the 2005 Broadway Revival Cast recording, and it was well worth it. But quite different to the movie.

Of course, the musical came first, and so I'll be comparing the movie to the original, as it were. Firstly, in the movie they transposed a lot of the key parts to fit the voices of the actors. For instance, in the musical Mrs Lovett is probably an alto, and Patti Lupone on my recording has a reasonably deep voice. Helena Bonham Carter, on the other hand, is a mezzo-soprano at least. Likewise, the role of Tobias is sung by a light tenor in the musical, while they used a boy soprano in the movie. I can see why an adult tenor would be more practical for the musical, as the Toby role is rather large and I can't see an 11-14 year-old boy playing it night after night for however long a Broadway run lasts. (Although hey, they do it for Annie.)

Given that they could cast more freely for the movie, though, I think they did superbly. Having a young boy with an unbroken voice as assistant to Pirelli just makes the role much more likeable and poignant in the right places. The young actors who play Johanna and Antony have adolescent-like singing voices, consistent with their characters (my original recording has an adult soprano as Johanna, which doesn't grate as much on the ear, when really it should. She's supposed to be 15.) And Helena Bonham Carter ... well.

I'm still tossing up as to whether Helena Bonham Carter or Patti LuPone (Mrs Lovett in the Broadway recording) is the better voice-actor. And that's quite a compliment to Ms Carter, given how much I love Patti LuPone. Of course, I was more than halfway through the recording before I realised where I recognised the voice - she also sang Fantine in the London Cast recording of Les Miserables. And Ms Carter does a different, but equally good job. And she does a great down-to-earth accent, I'm not sure what to call it, although it's definitely a British one. Ms LuPone had an American accent in the recording, and that made me cringe in places.

They also seem to have sped up some of the songs for the movie. Either that or the professional singers have that much better diction, that everything not only comes out clearer, but seems slower. But I could swear that most of Mrs Lovett's songs in the movie are a touch faster than on the stage version, especially the patter in "The Worst Pies in London." (See, with song titles like that, you've got to see it.) And it works well, even if Smith had much trouble making out the words.

And the choice of what songs to put in the movie and what to leave out ... I think they did well. They did leave out a key 'narration' song, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", which it seems some musical-goers missed. Me, I wasn't that enamoured of the song itself, although maybe it needs a visual impact to go along with it. The flashback technique they used in the movie in the other songs served as a good background, so that song would have been redundant. And the rest of the songs ... well, they flattened some of the characters out severely (Judge Turpin, Johanna and the Beggar Woman) by leaving out key songs that displayed depth of character, but I don't think it detracted from the story.

Overall, I think the movie is a great rendition of the musical. Hey, apparently even Stephen Sondheim likes it. But if the musical ever comes to town, or we ever make it to London's West End, I'll be seeing that too. :)

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Our anniversary

Well, I was going to write something interesting today. But I'm too tired! I woke up at 3am and started doing stuff rather than going back to sleep. And I've had two naps today, but it hasn't helped enough.

So here's something I prepared earlier.

It was Smith and my anniversary of the first time we went out, on January 24th. I wrote him a card.

[front of card]
24th January, 2008
"Dear Smith,


It had to happen sometime. After eight years, your brainwashing has finally worn off [in-joke]. Finally, I see things as they really are. I'm kicking myself now, I really am. How could I have thought I loved you?

[inside card, left-hand side]

I mean, all you ever did for me was
share my interest in Physics,
share my love of Terry Pratchett [author of the Discworld series],
make interesting conversation with me,

[continued on a pasted-in loooonnnng strip of paper, folded]
share in-jokes with me, make me laugh, bounce ideas off me, invent new words for me, look at me every day, tell me you loved me in a wonderfully cryptic and creative way, decide to live where you wanted to, send me novel-length emails, tell me your innermost secrets, hopes and dreams, share most of my values and tolerate the rest, feel protective of me, consider my comfort, introduce me to online life, be nice to my family, kiss me silly, cuddle me happy, ask me to marry you, consent when I wanted to wait, give me unwrapped books, lend me your library, share bus trips home with me, be nice to my friends, fit in with my social life, accommodate my study and my timeline, provide me with a safe haven, give me your old computer, download games for me, share your home with me, accept the ring I bought, share your family with me, hold me when I needed you, wait up for me in the lab, miss me when I was away, talk about my family with me, support me through my first job, distract me from my studies, decide what you really wanted to do, move out with me, buy household goods with me, buy furniture with me, make a life for me, enjoy my cooking, buy me a ring, marry me on the MUD [imaginary], wear my ring, support me financially, endure my clinical placements, cook when I was too tired, cuddle me when I was sad, watch TV with me, kill a zillion cockroaches, pay my HECS [Uni fees], take me out to dinner, visit my family with me, tell me about your job, make me smile, take me to concerts, find a job you like, indulge my MUD addiction, sleep by my side, visit me on rural terms, help me take my medicine, support me through my exams, talk about life with me, pick a beautiful new apartment, wash up when I need to cook, buy fun jigsaw puzzles, hold me on the train, help me get out of bed, dress me for class, make sure I eat, change your work hours for me, remind me to take my medicine, take me to the doctor's, hold me when I cried, kiss me til I smiled, make sure I did paperwork, analyse my chances of getting the job I wanted, let me live away when I had to, look good in a suit, imitate HEX [from Discworld] for me, teach me to code, marry me on a beautiful day, plan a wonderful honeymoon, drive us all around New Zealand, take me bird-watching, slide down a glacier with me, surprise me with puzzles, go ballooning with me, fly on a wire, endure my horrible hours, go dancing with me, take me to the theatre, visit me at work, talk me down out of the building, make new friends and old with me, cuddle me when I made mistakes, feed me dinner when I couldn't move, cook dinner when I could, clean the house, take me skiing, push me to move when I was home alone, talk me through things on the phone, stroke my hair when I was sleepy, make me get out of the house, watch my mood for me, help my tidy my room, vacuum the house, let me have friends over, endure my bad habits,
let me know when you were irritated, guilt-trip me into good behaviour, let me buy anything I wanted, share fantastic and whimsical ideas with me, talk with me at nights, walk with me in the mornings, never show a hint of jealousy, while at the same time being perfectly possessive,

[on the card again, still left-hand side]
love me with all your heart, inspire me to be a better person, and generally make me the happiest woman in the world.

[inside card, right-hand side]
I mean, DUH! I should have realised that a man who couldn't bend the universe to my every wish [Another in-joke] would try and make up for it in other ways. And now, it's been eight years, when all along I could have been out there, looking for the man who could...

Oh, what? I actually got myself married to you?
Uh oh...
this complicates things.
let me think now...

Well, before I go on my way, I guess that to be fair, I should try and repay all that ... So I think I'll stick around for a while longer.

And you're good company, I'll give you that.

And besides, if anyone's going to bend the universe to my every wish, isn't it going to be you?

And maybe...

[back of card]
maybe I really am a little bit in love with you after all.

[Illustration: small hearts drift into big hearts forming a thundercloud, raining into a blue puddle washing away to one side.]

*brain slowly melts, and washes clean*

I see the truth ...
I love you with every subatomic particle of my being...
and I always will.


Monday, 4 February 2008

Very late last night, I read something that made me very angry.

Anger is an emotion I'm very unfamiliar with, actually. It doesn't come easily and I tend to repress it, or rationalise around it. I have a very high tolerance for misunderstanding; I have a very high tolerance for 'lack of progress' when things aren't urgent; I have a reasonably high tolerance for most aspects of standard human behaviour. So a lot of things that get people irritable or angry don't affect me.

I used to get angry, of course, when I was a young child; I remember several decent rolling-around-on-the-floor temper tantrums, none of which had any good cause. They probably lasted until I was about nine; by then I was starting to realise what I was losing, and to take more care of my dignity. Then, too, anger started turning to sadness and retreat - and eventually I started skipping even that step in favour of analysing the situation and, well, doing something about it. Or learning from it.

Part of it, I guess, is that I have a reasonable self-esteem in a lot of areas, these days. So it takes quite a lot to threaten me. It's not often that I encounter any cause for fear, real or imagined; I have a good life. You can't hurt me by saying I'm ugly, or fat, or stupid, or selfish, or a whiner, or silly, or nerdy, or any manner of other things, because I know what I am. (To wit: I look like your average Chinese, I have a poor appetite, people call me unusually intelligent, I do things predominantly for others, and I complain very little. And I'm silly and nerdy and geeky and indecisive and overly serious. So what?) I'm comfortable in my own skin. I'm even popular in certain circles, and loved by others.

I do place a high value on understanding. But I also appreciate that it's sometimes not easily obtained. If someone has misunderstood something, I know that that doesn't necessarily mean they think ill of me; such things can be resolved. Who knows, I might be mistaken, or I might not have made myself clear. I give people the benefit of the doubt in these situations too; I tend to assume they have good intentions, that they don't set out to malign me, and that nobody has perfect delivery. Some times understanding takes more effort than others.

I'm also used to having patience with and tolerance for people. If the lady at the bank has to sort out paperwork the previous customer left, before she can call me up, so be it. The person who stepped on the back of my shoe didn't actually do it deliberately. The patient who makes unreasonable demands is sick and needs comfort. The people in the queue in front of me have their own agendas and stresses. I don't need to get worked up about it.

When I see people's anger in these situations, I've always seen it as getting in the way of resolution - people alienate each other, make each other nervous, and stop communicating. I'm a communication junkie; I love to know that somebody understood what I meant, or how I feel, and to think that I can empathise with them in some way, and see what they are trying to tell me. Anger, as I see it, is often a barrier. And quite often a waste of time.

Which is not to say that I ignore injustice. I don't know, I must lead a charmed life, injustice seldom happens to me, or at least not in any serious way. And I don't have the sense of self-entitlement that leads some people to imagine injustice, whenever they don't get everything they want. When it does happen to others, I do what I can. I try to help those who need it. There are always options, ways around a situation, ways to cope and things to work on. I'm not motivated by revenge, but fairness appeals to me. And I have an exceedingly strong - overriding, even - sense of doing what is fair. Or trying to.

But anyway, last night, I was angry. Very much so. I even considered getting her back, showing her up by making it clear what I really was.

Of course, that idea quickly dissolved. What angered me was that realistically, there was no way to make things right and still be true to who I am and lead my life. There were options - there always are - I had considered and rejected them many times before- but they involve a lot more time and effort than I have available, or ever will. I am going to have a full-time job to go back to, after all.

So I did the first obvious thing: I vented to a friend. I didn't even have to tell her much, just point out what had happened and let her see the obvious injustice. She sympathised - that was all I needed - and I felt better immediately. After a rambling discussion on health, what she was cooking for dinner and what I had in the fridge, I thought I was ready for bed. It was 4am my time.

What I didn't fully appreciate was the energy that comes with anger. My mind was abuzz for the next two hours. I'm not one to think negatively of people, or to go over perceived misdeeds round and round again; I had already accepted that the injustice was there, and permanent; my previous efforts had come to nought. Where I was mistaken was in thinking that acceptance was the same as resolution. Instead, my mind got creative, and started presenting me with an infinite number of avenues. I could do this and this, and limit the damage... I could help others learn from my situation... I could be true to myself and what I really wanted to do by starting this or that project, and everyone would see. And maybe, yes, there was an easier way of showing her up; it wouldn't even have to be permanent ... no, here were some even better things to do with my time ... on and on.

I know now why they say never to go to bed on a dispute. Bedtime is the worst time to be angry, because you know you need sleep, and yet you can't. And you know that no matter what you think of, it will be best done in the morning; you'll be out of whack if you don't sleep; and yet you can't. The energy is there, whichever way you channel it, constructive or destructive ... it quickens your breathing and your pulse, raises your blood pressure, whooshes through your mind and your limbs. And you need your sleep! Darn it.

It got to six o'clock, normal time for our morning walk, although I knew Smith wouldn't be walking because he'd been up late trying to make something work. I got out of bed for a drink of water, and seriously considered doing the walk anyway, in the rain, by myself, just so I could sleep. I'd already tried progressive relaxation (and found my jaw was tense), and attempts at meditation, trying to block everything out with my mantra, but of course I was too tired for that to really work. Concentration was not available.

And then I dismissed the idea of the walk (I probably would have collapsed) and went back to bed, and Smith turned over and put his arms right around me ... held my head to his chest while he slept... and I was safe.

Only then could I let go, tell my creative mind to take a rest; only then could I slowly, visualising each colour in turn, bring my thoughts back to a normal level (I dunno, it works); and then, focused, take myself back to the reality of warm, soft bed, half-light, bird call outside ... cradled by my husband, I relaxed. Even then it took a while ... but I eventually slept.

And of course the options were all there in the morning, and some of them were more realistic than others. Morning is the best time to be creative, because you have the whole day ahead of you to do what you think best!


I haven't been that angry in a long, long while.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Tea flavouring and random topics

Well, I'd been putting off posting here for a while. The reason is that there is a topic I really want to write about - have for a couple of weeks - but I don't quite know what I want to say. So every time I come here, I think 'I really should write about that conversation' but I don't know what to write, and I go away.

But I also want to practise my writing skills. I'm determined to post three times a week now - Monday/Wednesday/Friday if I can manage it. And I've just realised - it's okay to just come and write something else! If I can't think of anything, I'll look up a random concept from the dictionary and write about that. If nothing else I'll have learnt something. :P

But today I wanted to write about tea flavouring. My sister April brought me a bottle of Lychee Tea from a Chinese supermarket. It's really nice - tea mixed with lychee juice, and refrigerated. I love lychees, sweet and lovely to bite into, in a mini-explosion of juice. I haven't previously been an iced tea fan, but I could get used to this stuff. Probably not especially good for my water balance, but even if I have to drink extra water to make up for it, I think I can live with that.

Anyway, on the bottle it says 'Real brewed from tea leaves'. And that made me wonder ... why on earth would they need to put that?

I think they're trying to distinguish it from 'tea flavouring'. But who would bother with tea flavouring? Tea leaves have got to be one of the cheapest commodities around, I would have thought. (Maybe I'm wrong.) Wouldn't 'tea flavouring' be much more expensive? Lychee flavouring, that I can understand. The fact that this drink has real lychee juice in it does count as a selling point. But 'real brewed from tea leaves' ... not so much.

When I first thought about it, I wondered if you were only allowed to put 'real tea' if you had actual tea leaves in the drink and didn't take them out. That's not so cheap. But now that I look on the bottle, in the ingredients it says 'freshly brewed black tea'. That, and the original 'brewed from tea leaves' wording, tells me they took the tea leaves out.

So they're advertising the fact that tea leaves were involved. In a bottle of iced tea. Is that special?

Maybe I take things too much for granted.