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What I Think: Review of Iain Bank's The Wasp Factory



*one of my ongoing series of blog posts that looks at the books I read*

One of the many books on my reading list (here) has finally been read (well, actually re-read, if you're being technical). And it comes highly recommended.

Iain Bank's The Wasp Factory was written in the early 1980s, but its themes are still relevant today. I first read the book over six years ago, and I was both fascinated and shocked by what I had read. The book is clearly post-modern, and, thus, doesn't shy away from any of the difficult subjects that it approaches.

The book centers around sixteen-year-old Frank, who lives on an isolated Scottish island with his father, Angus. His mother, Agnes, has long abandoned her family, and thus, Frank has grown up without any female influence. As a result, Frank feels a deep distrust--one that borders on hatred--towards women.

Frank, who finds solace in killing mice, birds and other small island animals, believes in a sort of religion that he made up; he has created the Wasp Factory out of an old clock face. When a wasp is put into the Factory, it must choose one of twelve ways to die. Based on the wasp's choice, Frank believes the future is then foretold. Frank also goes through a nasty phase in his younger years where he decided to kill three of his family members--his male cousin, a younger girl cousin, and his younger brother (Paul). Needless to say, Frank is not your typical 16-year-old boy.

Furthur complicating Frank's life is the fact that his older brother, Eric, has escaped from a mental institution and is working his way back towards Frank and their father. Yet, the central conflict is not between Frank and his brother's impending arrival, but rather between Frank and his desire to figure out who he is. According to family lore, three-year-old Frank was accidentally castrated by his father's bulldog one hot, summer day. Thus, Frank feels that he is only half of a man, and thus, only half of a person. But has Frank gotten the entire story?

The book isn't long--just over 200 pages--and it reads quickly. Some of the things that Frank discusses and sees are difficult to handle (for example, he blows up several rabbits in one of his imaginary wars, and Eric burns a dog), but they are worth powering through for the sake of the novel. The ending is incredibly satisfying--and completely unexpected!--and makes Frank reconsider everything about himself, his life and his beliefs.

If you like this book, you might also like:
  • Peter Shaffer, Equus
  • Martin Amis, Time's Arrow
  • Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites
  • Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers

Wanderlust Revisited


We've been back from Scotland for over two weeks now: the jet lag is gone, the bags are unpacked and all of the trip laundry has been done.

There has been some minor readjustment after our trip (though, I must admit, that is ongoing--I found myself thinking about turning right into the wrong lane earlier today. Thanks a lot, UK reversed traffic lanes), but most of that is under control.

One thing has surprised me as we rejoined the working world this week. And it was something that I never thought was possible for me.

I was happy--truly happy--to be home in my little house with my puppy (who I missed an enormous amount while we were gone).

My parents took me abroad for the first time when I was 17. I got to choose where I wanted to go for my high school graduation, so we spent ten days in London, Wales and southwestern England. I was absolutely drunk with wanderlust after that trip; all the way through college, I wanted to go backpacking across Europe. I wanted to run away and go to school at Oxford, Cambridge, or St. Andrews. I wanted to take the Chunnel to Paris on the weekends, spend the summer on the Amalfi Coast, experience a real German Oktoberfest in Bavaria.

I dreamed about leaving South Carolina, my family and my tiny college town. Though I was (and still am) very close to my family, I wanted to do something completely self-indulgent for once.

And then, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I had the most perfect opportunity ever: I was invited to study abroad in London for three months. I was terrified, but ecstatic. My parents--only half-joking--told me that I absolutely, definitely must come home at the end of the program. I think they were secretly terrified that I was take off and become a Euro-hippie with a guitar and a travel backpack for the remainder of my twenties.

In a lot of ways, that summer helped me to grow up. But when I returned home in August, I realized that the trip had only increased my desire to live abroad.

I went to France that same year for my sister's high school graduation present. I came home and immediately wanted to go back to Europe. Instead, I tried to enjoy life the best I could in my college town of Clemson, SC (population: super tiny).

Many years went by. Law school came....and went. I transferred into an English literature graduate program, and specialized in (what else!?) British literature. I further focused my studies on modern London and the books written about it. I, being a penniless grad student, would read book after book about London--a place I desperately wanted to go back to, but couldn't get to--and just cry. Something ached in my soul during those years.

During the same time, I was (not coincidentally) going through a horrible break-up when my fiance and I decided to call off our wedding. I think I saw living abroad as a way to escape all of the pain and fear about the future. But living elsewhere costs money, and any grad student will tell you that money is something far and few between.

This month, six years after my study abroad experience, and almost nine years since I first went to England, I got to go on the trip that I had dreamed about, cried over, fastidiously planned for years: two weeks in Scotland and England.

It was everything I wanted and more. I got to go with the absolute love of my life, Landon. I showed him all of my old haunts in London (which he'd heard about, but not seen, since he knew me when I studied abroad in college), and we both experienced new things in Scotland.

But, for the first time ever, something was different. When I got back to our little house, that familiar tugging at my heart, that constant wanderlust I've had, wasn't there.

So, what's changed? you may wonder. Don't get me wrong--I still love to travel. I always will.

There's something challenging, scary and completely rewarding about immersing yourself in a different culture.

But now I will travel for my own enjoyment and not as a way to escape myself and the things going on in my life. I've finally learned that no matter how far or how fast you run, the issues in your life will always catch up.

Ultimately, traveling should be about experiencing the world, not running from what's bothering you.

Being nomadic still appeals to me, but right now, it's just not feasible. We both have jobs (teaching and banking) that aren't super flexible, and we've got a mortgage and a dog to worry about. Sure, those things can be worked around, but now's not the time for us to up and leave everything permanently. It's much more feasible for us to take trips when our schedules (and our bank accounts) allow.

For the first time in my life, I am happy to be exactly where I am and exactly who I am. And I only had to go halfway around the world to figure that out.

Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2005
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 2011

Why do you travel? Have you ever had the desire to live a nomadic life?

The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer is Singing Loudly for All to Hear

Tinsel? Check.

Many, many feet of mini-lights? Check. 

A cute, red angel topper? Check.

All the nutcrackers by the hearth? Check.


In other words: 
Our Christmas decorations are up!


Landon and I were living with my parents last year during the holidays, so we didn't really get to decorate too much...which makes this year even more special. 

We had a great time unpacking all of our little kid ornaments. I love that we're taking old traditions and merging them into something new and reflective of us. 


Sunday Strolls

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As our UK vacation came to a close, we wanted a little time to rest and enjoy our last moments. So, for our last day in London, Landon and I decided to wander around and just do whatever came to us...which is not too hard to do in a city as busy as London. We ended up going back to central London, and spending time in the Leicester Square/ Covent Garden area, just shopping and picking up last minute souvenirs. 

Brunch at Covent Gardens

While shopping in Leicester Square, we came upon the European premiere of Happy Feet Two, so we stood in line to see the celebs come in.

Someone's coming--everyone get ready!

It's Elijah Wood, I swear!

Check out all of our loot!

BEST. TRIP. EVER.

Pretty Antiques and Theatre Shrieks: Portobello Road Market and the West End

Portobello Road Market and West End Theatre | CosmosMariners.com

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Saturday mornings in London definitely require a trip to the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill (like the movie!). It's pretty much the coolest farmers market ever--there are blocks after blocks of food, antiques, clothes and souvenirs.

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Portobello Road Market and West End Theatre | CosmosMariners.com
the view of the beginning of the market from the start of Portobello Road


Portobello Road Market and West End Theatre | CosmosMariners.com
with one of the delicious, freshly made doughnuts we got from one of the street stalls. It was as big as my face, and I ate the WHOLE thing.
After we had eaten our fill of doughnuts and after we'd bought some gorgeous sandstone owl bookends and a new wool cape for me, Landon and I tried to make the Jack the Ripper walking tour. However, the Circle Line on the Tube had other plans for us (Transport for London kept shutting down different lines for refurbishment so they'll be ready for the Olympics next summer) and we couldn't get to the meeting area for the tour. 

So! We rallied and decided to head to my old home-away-from-home in Chelsea. I was so excited to see my old residence hall from my study abroad program back in 2005 (it's the big, tall building on the middle/ right side of the picture below):

Portobello Road Market and West End Theatre | CosmosMariners.com

We cruised King's Road and ducked into the Waterstone's there for a few books by my favorite British authors, then walked to Knightsbridge (it's quite a trek, but we had our trekking boots on). 

Next stop: Harrod's!

Daniel Radcliffe's Hogwarts uniforms from Harry Potter (part of the Harry Potter store inside Harrod's)

To finish off our crazy-busy, but super awesome day, we got all gussied up (as my grandmother said) and headed out to see The Woman in Black in the West End.
Check out my new cape!

Dinner was at Wagamama's in Leicester Square (another must-eat in London!), and then we hurried to the Fortune Theatre for the show. 

The Woman in Black is about a retired lawyer who feels the need to recount what happened to him in his youth. As a new lawyer, he is sent by his firm to deal with the estate of a reclusive old woman. On his trip, he finds that the townspeople don't like to talk about Eel Marsh House and what happened there. The lawyer dismisses the stories as just that, but ultimately, he discovers the truth about the woman in black. The play is based on a book, and now, a movie based on the play (starring Daniel Radcliffe) is coming to theatres soon. I will definitely go see the movie...though I'll be peeping through my fingers in several spots!

Portobello Road Market and West End Theatre | CosmosMariners.com


I knew the play was supposed to be scary, but I don't know how a play could actually pull that off. I was so wrong! I jumped, screamed and generally had the BEST time. And to top it all off, only two actors carried the entire play. It was one of those plays where everything--the stage lights, the acting, the mood, the dialogue--to create this one awesome experience. I love when that happens! Check it out if you're in London--it's the second longest running play on the West End, so it should be there for a while.

What's your favorite thing to do in London? What West End plays have you seen?

London Calling


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I was personally very excited about the last leg of our trip, which included a few days in London. I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in London several years ago, and this was the first chance I'd had to return to my favorite city in the entire world!

On our first day in London, we headed to two of London's most popular attractions: the Tower of London and the British Museum.
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The Tower of London:


The British Museum:



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High tea? Yes, please! 

There are few things in life that I love more than a pot of English Breakfast tea, some warm scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream. And if you're ever in London, you should definitely take in the afternoon tea at the British Museum--it's about half the cost of the Ritz, but has just as much ambiance (and it helps that the food is also crazy delicious!). 

My study abroad school, in the heart of Bloomsbury. I loved being able to wander around the British Museum in between classes! It was so weird to go back there--so much has happened in my life since 2005, but everything looked exactly the same.

Will and Kate's Old Stomping Grounds

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Goodbye, Dunblane!
in front of our hotel in Dunblane
Hello, St. Andrews! 
Walking along the Scores in St. Andrews

For our fifth day in Scotland, we ventured cross-country to the eastern coast. Years ago, I had this lovely dream of leaving South Carolina and finishing my degree at the University of St. Andrews. While I am ultimately very happy that I stayed in SC (at least in part because I met my husband at college!), I've always wanted to visit St. Andrews. Plus, that's where Will and Kate met...and I won't lie, it only enhanced the appeal! :)

A few of my favorite pics from the day:
Landon at the Old Course 

West Sands, where the opening shots of "Chariots of Fire" were filmed

Old Course

St. Andrews Castle

Landon in the countermines underneath St. Andrews Castle

Just down the street at St. Andrews Cathedral

Landon's first encounter with fish and chips. Yum!

Driving back to Edinburgh via East Neuk

That night, we took the sleeper train from Edinburgh to London. It was big on fun, but tiny on space!

Go Boil Your Silly English Bottoms, You Silly English Pig Dogs


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Day 4 on our UK Extravaganza took us to Stirling, Scotland, just a few minutes from our hotel in Dunblane. We had four stops: Stirling Castle, the William Wallace Monument, Doune Castle and the Dunblane Cathedral.

First off, Stirling Castle, which was an important stronghold in the Scottish Wars for Independence. At one time or another, both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce had possession of Stirling Castle, though James V probably had the biggest hand in designing the property. James VI of Scotland (also James I of England) was its last royal inhabitant.
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Nothing says, "Top o' the mornin' to ye" like a little interpretive dance.

In front of James V's Royal Apartments

In the Great Hall

The Great Hall

We played dress-up in the children's section of the castle!

Next up was the William Wallace Monument, built during the Victorian period by the Scots who felt that it was horrible that one of their national heroes didn't have a permanent monument in Scotland. There are over 280 stairs to the very top (and no elevator!) and three exhibition halls on the way up: William Wallace's biography room, the Hall of Heroes (focusing on the contributions of the Scots people to the world) and a history of the monument. 

the view from the top of the monument

from the outside of the monument. See the little spiral-y thing on the left hand side? That's the staircase. The LOOOONG staircase.

William Wallace's sword. It's pretty much as tall as I am.

Clemson spirit abounds even at the top of the Wallace Monument!

the view from the top of the monument

Third stop of the day: the on-site film location for "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," also known as Doune Castle in Doune, Scotland (thus, the post title). 

Behold:
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That silly Arthur King and his silly kanigets don't have anything on me!

It was very quiet at Doune Castle, too, so (again) we had the place to ourselves. We had a great time wandering around that drafty, quiet castle!


The final stop of the day was Dunblane Cathedral, which had an incredible back story. A tower was originally built on the site in the 1100s, and the cathedral was built around the tower about 100 years later. During the Scottish Wars for Independence, Edward I took the lead roof off of the cathedral to use for bullets. As the nave of the cathedral was now roofless, the congregation turned the nave into the graveyard, and walled off the choir area to use as the new, smaller church. It set up stayed this way until the Victorian period when the congregation put a new roof on the nave and opened up the entire cathedral again. They didn't move the graveyard though, so there are graves still under the nave!


An' I'll Be in Scotland Before Ye


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On our third day of sightseeing (catch up with our earlier adventures in Edinburgh, Roslin and Melrose), we went into the Trossachs, an area of woodlands east of Ben Lomond and Loch Lomond. On our original itinerary, we were going pony trekking and clay pigeon shooting on an estate about 2.5 hours from our hotel in Dunblane.

However, Landon went down to check his email in the business center and started talking to one of the hotel's employees, this super nice man named Ian. After hearing about the five-hour roundtrip we had planned, Ian suggested that we take a drive around the nearby Trossachs. I'd done a little research on our genealogy before the trip, and it turns out that my family is from the southern tip of Loch Lomond, which is  in the Trossachs. I knew my grandparents would be happy to hear that we were switching up our plans to include a visit to the "home place" (which, let's face it, was only true about 400 years ago since we sort of jumped on that immigration-to-America thing as soon as it became a viable option).

And boy, I, for one, was really happy that Landon had that chance encounter with Ian because the Trossachs were GORGEOUS.

We first stopped in the tiny speck of a town called Kilamahog (yes, seriously):
There, we met Hamish, Heather and Honey, Highland cows (which are called "shaggy coos" by the locals). 


Then, we passed the first of several beautiful lochs: 


On the way to our next stop, we happened upon Rob Roy's grave in the town of Balquhidder.



We stopped for lunch at Killan, near the Falls of Dochart.
Landon and his traditional Scottish Breakfast


It was indeed wee.

After lunch, we headed to Tyndrum, and stopped for a quick photo shoot at Loch Dochart.
Traveler Natalie: Conquering rocks is all in a day's work



Then, we had a quick sing-a-long on the way to Loch Lomond. Our car was obviously the cool one to ride in. 
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Loch Lomond was huge!

I was super glad we agreed to switch from pony trekking to our Trossachs trek--it was probably one of my favorite days on the trip!

Fact: Scotland has some WEIRD street signs. Our favorites included the following:
WHAT?? Why are the cars not in their lane??

Because old people are obviously walking around in the forest.