Monthly Archives: May 2017

Book Review: The Awakening – Kate Chopin

A rich, married woman in 1890s New Orleans falls in love with a young man. She realises that she is completely dissatisfied with her life as a mother and housewife, and sets about changing her life so she is happy with it. A really evocative book about a woman’s rejection of society, and her discovery of who she really is.

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Edna Pontellier has what seems to be a pretty nice life. Her husband is a kind man – he doesn’t believe in ordering his wife about, or even worse. Her role is to, well, lounge about entertaining people from what I can gather. But she isn’t passionately in love with her husband. When she spends a summer in the company of Robert Lebrun she slowly realises that she is unfulfilled and desperately unhappy with the mundanity of life. She craves independence and passion.

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish

As an insight into Edna’s state of mind, it’s really insightful, convincing, and beautifully written. A criticism would be that clearly Edna’s life is actually not that bad. She has an ok husband, who provides for her, is generous, and is supportive of her (so long as she behaves in away that fits in with societal expectations of her). She is expected to care for their children when their maid is not around, but she’s quite free to socialise as she likes. I’m not saying she should just put up with being unhappy, just that she actually has a whole lot of options – especially given that during the story she realises that with her paintings becoming better, she has a means to support herself.

She is quite indifferent to her children. She doesn’t have much to do with their day to day upbringing and she sends them away fairly often to her family.

She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them.

What The Awakening does really well is to describe how a daily life, living up to other peoples expectations of how she should behave, can grind you down and make you miserable. Edna decides to change things in her life…

Mr Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. It shocked him. Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him. When Mr Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent. She had resolved to never take another step backward.

Her action so far had been to ditch her usual Tuesday receiving and visiting of other society ladies. Scandalous! It’s admirable how once Edna sets out to free herself she goes for it without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks.

…she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.

You need to be aware that as it was written in the 1890s there is a lot of racist language used in the descriptions of the staff they have serving their lives. There are specific words used to describe people that refer to the colour of their parents. In fact, these terms are used in place of their names. They are just referred to as ‘the …..’ or ‘the ……’ in reference to their skin colour. The lady that brings up Edna’s children is not even given a name.

Given that the whole plot is driven by infidelity, or the idea of it, it is almost devoid of sexual interaction. This is not Jilly Cooper. When an illicit kiss happens it’s description is electric, and it’s a refection of the whole plot that she is the instigator:

She leaned over and kissed him – a soft, cool, delicate kiss, whose voluptuous sting penetrated his whole being – then she moved away from him.

It’s a fleeting glimpse into one character, but this small insight into the douchery of Robert is spectactular:

He looked at Edna’s book, which he had read; and he told her the end, to save her the trouble of wading through it, he said.

Un.be.liev.able. Run away, Edna! He’s a bad ‘un!

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

I am a quiet person. I’m an introvert. I get frustrated with people who mistake quiet for shy. Some people assume that everyone who is quiet is a wannabe extrovert who’s just too afraid to be loud. I’m quiet and I’m happy. And I don’t want to be loud and the centre of attention. I will do karaoke in front of strangers when I want to and I speak my mind (when I feel it’s appropriate). I’m not crippled by my quietness. And I don’t want to be an extrovert. Thank goodness for Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Thank you Susan Cain for writing this book.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

I went into Quiet knowing I would love it because it’s entirely set up to big up (so to speak) introversion and point out how introverts have enormous amounts to offer, and should be seen as just as important as extrovert voices. The ‘extrovert ideal’ world we live in is flawed because it tends to diminish and ignore the introverts. What we need is the balance that both offer.

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Quiet is an interesting book that can give you insights into both the introverts and extroverts around you. It’s serious, but also quite funny. Reading (introvert) Susan Cain’s descriptions of attending a Tony Robbins seminar to help you be more outgoing are hilarious:

“But I’m not an extrovert, you say!” he told us at the start of the seminar. “So? You don’t have to be an extrovert to feel alive!” True enough. But it seems, according to Tony, that you’d better act like one if you don’t want to flub the sales call and watch your family die like pigs in hell.

and getting a tour round an fMRI machine:

Before Schwartz opens the door, he asks me to take off my gold hoop earrings and set aside the metal tape recorder I’ve been using to record our conversation. The magnetic field of the fMRI machine is 100,000 times stronger than the earth’s gravitational pull – so strong, Schwartz says, that it could rip the earrings right out of my ears if they were magnetic and send them flying across the room. I worry about the metal fasteners of my bra, but I’m too embarrassed to ask. I point instead to my shoe buckle, which I figure has the same amount of metal as the bra strap. Schwartz says it’s all right, and we enter the room.

Quiet goes on to describe how introverts and extroverts like a different level of stimulation from the outside world to feel comfortable. Introverts get easily overstimulated and so need to retreat to a less stimulating environment more frequently. I’m massively oversimplifying the description here – it covers several chapters in the book. We tend to seek out the right level of stimulation for ourselves, naturally. By having an awareness of what is happening it can help you plan your life, social interactions and navigate relationships.

Quiet gave me some insight into why I found being a high school teacher so incredibly draining. What was I even thinking? A job where you are interacting with hundreds of people everyday. Where you are in a conflict situation frequently. It’s so clear now why I had to change things after 8 years. I now work in a sixth form college. All of the teaching and subject teaching I love with none (well, hardly any) of the conflict. So much better for my mental well being! Wish I’d finished Quiet when I vaguely started reading it (in 2011, according to goodreads)!

I knew Quiet would help me feel empowered and help me see more of the strengths I have, but I never foresaw that it would help me understand my 4 year old daughter more. My daughter shows all the traits of being quite an extrovert and honestly, I find her completely exhausting. Reading Quiet has enabled me to understand her more and has helped me be more tolerant to her loudness, sociability and constant need to be accompanied and busy and noisy! I hadn’t considered this might be a feature of Quiet at all, and it’s been quite a revelation.

I recommend this book for introverts, extroverts, everyone.  And if you can’t be bothered reading the whole lot, have a look at the conclusion chapter, it’s a beautiful summary of all of these ideas. Here are two of my favourite parts of the final chapter:

Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socialising with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

Book Review: The Secret to Not Drowning – Colette Snowden

The Secret to Not Drowning lets us sit inside the head of Marion, a former Charlie’s Angels wannabe who is utterly controlled by her husband. Her every interaction and movement is accounted for and controlled. She despises her husband but can’t see a way out.

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It’s horribly unsettling especially because you can so easily relate to her through her thoughts. I spent all of this book scared that a terrible violent event was about to happen and willing her to find the strength to leave him. She is completely passive and is constantly trying not to do anything that may upset him, and it doesn’t take much! But she has an inner strength that you wouldn’t know about without hearing what she is thinking:

He can’t open the door to my head because I can lock it whenever I feel like it.

 

***spoilers in the rest of the review***

 

There are no extremely violent events described, but they are referred to and hinted at. There are horrible events described though, for example, He (for he is always He or Him) makes her eat some flowers he has bought her because he perceives she has behaved in a way he doesn’t like.

I enjoyed reading most of The Secret to Not Drowning. I really felt for Marion, and wanted to know what would happen. It had a page-turning quality, and it reads really well. I didn’t much like the ending – it was too inconclusive for me. I just don’t believe it was leading on to a different life for Marion. I felt like she would just go back to him!

Book Review: Lion – Saroo Brierley

Lion is Saroo Brierley’s moving life story. Until he was five years old he lived, with his family, in a western part of India. He then accidentally became trapped on a train and found himself in Calcutta, in the eastern part of India, 1500 miles away from home.

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With poor language skills and with the whole being five years old thing, he couldn’t find his own way home, and couldn’t get anyone to help him. He survived a truly frightening time on the streets.

Eventually, miraculously, he found himself being helped. His family couldn’t be found and so he was adopted by an Australian family.

Fast forward to him being around 30 years old and he realises Google Earth, and the little knowledge he has of where he grew up, can possibly allow him to locate his family.

It’s an amazing, terrible, horrifying story. I had to keep reminding myself that the early part of the story is only in the 1980s, and not a hundred years earlier than that. It’s written in quite a matter of fact style that I quite liked, but I could see how this could be a bit annoying to some readers. It’s quite obviously an extremely emotional story, but that is quite lacking in the storytelling.

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Saroo with his Australian mum and his birth mother.  Photo from www.thenational.ae

The book cover is Dev Patel playing Saroo in the film version. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait to. I think the story with the added heart string pulling emotional aspect will be stunning.  Also, the name of the book is a really sad, yet sweet, reveal moment in the book, so I won’t tell you now. 🙂

Book review: The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

The Good Immigrant is a brilliant collection of stories about being a black, asian or minority ethnic immigrant in Britain. It’s an awesome collection of lots of viewpoints. It’s written by 21 BAME people and I highly recommend giving it a read. I LOVED it.

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Some themes include the lack of thought people generally put into their use of language. The missing role models in popular culture. In A Guide to Being Black by Varaidzo, the idea that white people will use the n-word if no black people are around, especially in the context of singing along to rap lyrics, is discussed. I can imagine this happening and those people behaving differently if a person of colour is present. I think this is similar to those people that only behave well because they think God is watching.

…if a white kid raps all the lyrics to ‘Gold Digger’ and there isn’t a black person around to hear it, is it still racist?

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There are stories about the conflicting emotions when visiting family abroad – the feeling of not quite fitting in anywhere.

The over riding theme is just of being and feeling OTHER and how shit that can be. There is also plenty of celebration of how great being an immigrant can be. There is joy in these stories as well as sadness and struggle. Some parts have made me laugh, some have made me cry. Sometimes both on the same page. Reading The Good Immigrant just gave me ALL THE THOUGHTS, so apologies if this review is a bit rambling and all over the place!

Of the 20 stories, I didn’t dislike any of them. I loved the story of the unmasking of Kendo Nagasaki. I was heart broken for the Daniel York Loh, the author of Kendo Nagasaki and Me. Many of the stories include the terrible representation of BAME on television, films, and in the media in general. The importance of this is summed up in Window of Opportunity:

Storytelling is the most powerful way to promote our understanding of the world in which we live and the vessel to tell these stories is our media.

Himesh Patel

I think Bim Adewunmi has it about right in What We Talk About When We Talk About Tokenism:

But it seems obvious to me, a naive layman with beautiful dreams, that there are three steps to writing a good character of colour:

  1. Write a stonkingly good, well-rounded character
  2. Make the ‘effort’ to cast a person of colour
  3. That’s it!

Bim Adewunmi

You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be about White People, by Darren Chetty, is about representations of BAME characters in children’s literature, and is really thought provoking. The idea of books as mirrors and as windows really made me think. I’m already aware of issues like this. I try to buy my children books with a range of characters in. It’s difficult though, and you have to make a real determined effort to find any. (My quick recommendation is Ruby’s Sleepover. The main characters are girls, they are non white and they are brave. My kids love it.) Even with an awareness of the issues I wonder how well I have done. I’m going to audit the children’s bookshelves and I already know I will be disappointed with the results.

A lot of the stories talk of childhoods where they were the only, or one of a handful of non white faces at school. I grew up in an area like this, and I now live in one. My children go to a school where the overwhelming majority of faces are white. This concerns me and I make sure we visit cities often and we have better representation in the books we read and TV we watch, but I still don’t know if I could be doing anything else. Does even asking that make me a massive twat? I can’t move though, I guess that would be one answer.

There are stories that detail abuse received on the streets of Britain, particularly in And UK Fashion by Sabrina Mahfouz. It’s disgusting and shameful. It’s good to be reminded about this. As a white person, in a white family, living in a mostly white area, it’s too easy to forget that these incidents are a daily occurrence for some people. This has been a problem in the past, and I can only imagine what it must be like in twatface Brexit Britain. I welcome being reminded about other people’s reality. In fact, I think it’s vital to be forced out of the cosy echochamber we can set up for ourselves and understand more about the real world.

Perpetuating Casteism, by Sarah Sahim, is story about the Indian caste system:

My family never concerned themselves with casteism and neither did I: we didn’t discriminate or abide by its rules. However, this ‘caste-blind’ attitude is extremely harmful and you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for. I have the freedom to be wilfully ignorant, but others, especially Dalits, cannot afford to do so.

Sarah Sahim

When I was younger I thought being colour blind was a good enough approach to combat racism. Now I know more about it and realise this is just ignoring a problem by not addressing it. Only people who benefit from white supremacy can take this dismissive viewpoint and I strive to be better than complacent, and to teach my kids that immigration and having a multicultural society is a great, positive thing. I found this TED talk by Mellody Hobson to be a really informative:

My absolute favourite story was Shade by Salena Godden. I can’t stop thinking about this story. It’s beautifully written and devastating. I urge you to get hold of this book and read it.

Human colour is the colour I’m truly interested in, the colour of your humanity. May the size of your heart and the depth of your soul be your currency. Welcome aboard my Good Ship. Let us sail to the colourful island of mixed identity. You can eat from the cooking pot of mixed culture and bathe in the cool shade of being mixed-race. There is no need for a passport. There are no borders. We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard. United as a people we are a million majestic colours, together we are a glorious stained-glass window. We are building a cathedral of otherness, brick by brick and book by book. Raise your glass of rum, let’s toast to the minorities who are the majority.

Salena Godden

Also, literally no one buys clothes from Amazon. My tiny bugbear in an otherwise superb book. And final thought, if you haven’t read Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla, go and read it now – it’s a very enjoyable read.

Book Review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

A very short classic that we all already know the story of. I was impressed throughout with the amazing wordplay that makes up most of the dialogue between the characters. A non-stop, crazy adventure that only took me an hour to read 🙂

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Alice is remarkably laid back as one crazy thing after another happens to her. She’s also quite mean to loads of the creatures she meets.  She won’t stop going on about her cat eating mice, to a very scared mouse, for example. As well as every double meaning of words being wrongly interpreted:

‘I don’t think-‘

‘then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.’

there’s loads of pun based jokery too:

‘The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise-‘ ‘Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked. ‘We called him Tortoise because he taught us, ‘ said the Mock Turtle angrily: ‘really you are very dull!’

I wanted to get this read because I’m going to see an Alice in Wonderland ballet on Sunday night! Not that the plot was any sort of a mystery, but I often wonder how much has come from the original text, and how much from Disney.  It was worth the read.

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picture from: bookpeopleblog

Book review: It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

I’m glad I’ve read this book, or am I just glad I’ve finished reading it? At almost 400 pages of dense text, it’s not helped by starting with 150 almost unreadable pages. It’s interesting though, and much better when the action really starts after Buzz Windrip is elected President.

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I read this for a book club I’ve just joined. I’m not sure I’d have got through it if I hadn’t had a target to work too. In fact, I ended up working out exactly how many pages per day I needed to read to get it done. That’s not a good sign!

When I read the description I assumed it must be a very recent book. I couldn’t believe it’s from 1935. Does Sinclair Lewis own a time machine?

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It’s eerie how lots of this story parallels with recent events in America. I like this description of the wannabee President while he’s a campaigning Senator:

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic…

The story in It Can’t Happen Here centres on Doremus Jessop, a small town newspaper editor and his friends, family and acquaintances. It follows their lives as the country descends into fascism. It’s grim, unsettling, and makes you aware that it really could happen anywhere.

I found it a difficult read. Even after the startlingly unreadable first third, it’s really hard work. I wouldn’t normally pick up such a political book, so I was starting outside of my normal reading habits anyway. I’m glad I’ve finished it. I mean, I’m glad I’ve read it! But I will not need to read about politics, for fun, for a long, long time.

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it can!