Posted in Books, Fantasy, relationships, romance

Book Review: The Invisible Life of Addie Larue

Sometimes late at night (and with frighteningly increasing regularity this year) I would lie awake and tick off a mental checklist of the things I didn’t get to do today. Like, I’d promise myself I would do all my laundry, but then I had to work an extra hour here and an extra hour there just to finish off a project, so I’d leave laundry for another day.

Sometimes I’d run through a list of things I didn’t get to do for the week. I’d promise myself I’d go for a run, or start an exercise routine, but then the weather just wouldn’t cooperate, and I’d find myself working an extra shift or two to pay off some of my more pressing credit card bills, and before I know it another week has gone by without me doing any of the things I’d promised myself I’d do, so I make another promise to try again next week.

And then there’s the plans that I made for this year. I was going to go skydiving with my friends, travel with my parents, go on more hikes, be more adventurous, write a book, meet new people, maybe start dating again…and then coronavirus happened and those plans had to be put on hold. And with all the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, there’s really no telling when, if ever, life will regain some semblance of normalcy.

I guess my point is that I have always been morbidly obsessed with how much time I have to spend, and not just in the sense of the minutiae of daily living but on a much grander scale. Some days I feel like I’ve been in my 30s forever, and some days I feel like I’m being propelled at breakneck speed towards the end of days and I’m not ready for the end to come just yet.

I’m not ready because I feel like I have only just begun to live. There are so many things I want to do, so much I want to experience, and one of my biggest fears is that I will never have enough time to do all of them, that my life is going to be a column of unticked boxes, full of unfinished business.

Wow, that was morbid.

I guess I’m thinking about all of this now because The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is a book that compels you to reflect on the passage of time and what it means to really live, not just the eking out of existence that passes for living these days. This is the kind of book that reminds us to not spend too much of our time worrying about the inconsequential things, because it might cause us to miss out on the things that really matter.

The trick, really, is being able to separate which one is which.

Mostly this book will just make you think about life, how weird and wonderful it is, what gift it is to be alive, how we waste so much time treating it like an afterthought, consuming it like a Big Mac you eat on the go rather than savouring it like four-course meal its meant to be.

It will make you think about how sometimes life gets a little too much, how it all becomes a bit loud sometimes, how – for some people, life feels like a storm that will never end, and you just want it all to end.

But you shouldn’t.

Because as hard as it gets sometimes, the storm always passes. And you get the moments when life feels like that rare, perfect first date that you never want to end. You make it stretch, you go for one more drink, dance one last dance, walk all the way to the Tube station, have another good night kiss, decide to take a train heading in the opposite direction to where you live just so you could have more time with that person. If you’re lucky, that’s what life should feel like.

The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is a tribute to the moments you wish would never end.

This really is a beautiful book. Objectively, it perhaps could have done with a bit more trimming. Maybe it was a bit predictable. There were times when I felt like I’d read it all before. But those last hundred pages packed so much of an emotional punch that objectivity just went flying through the window. And V.E. Schwab writes so beautifully. She has a way of writing chapters that make you feel like you are being cocooned by the warmth of her prose.

The characters may have started out bland and one-dimensional, but you get to the end and you realise how complex and layered they really are, and in a strangely fitting way, I ended the book feeling like I never really understood them at all. The ending was ambiguous in the most beautiful of ways. To paraphrase a line from the book, the ending felt more like ellipses than an actual period. The story isn’t finished, even if it would now be left to the reader to imagine how each character’s fate would turn out.

I highly recommend this book. 4 out of 5 stars.

Addendum: Just to say, I know its funny that in a book that is probably more about being seen, and leaving your mark, and being remembered, I spent an entire blog post talking about life and the passage of time, put such is the magic of reading fiction. It will resonate with readers in different ways and for different reasons. I guess the only important thing is that it resonates with readers at all.

Posted in Young Adult, LGBT, friendship, dating, family

Book Review: Loveless – Alice Osman

I had my first kiss when I was twenty seven with a guy I’d met while speed dating. I grew up with all kinds of ideas about how my first kiss was going to go. Hopeless romantic that I was (and still am, probably) I imagined either a moonlit walk on the beach or a romantic candlelight dinner with a full orchestra playing Your Song by Elton John. Fireworks were essential, both literally and figuratively.

What I didn’t expect was dinner at a sushi restaurant (bad idea) and being kissed in the the middle of Trafalgar Square (okay, not a bad location) by someone I was only dating because I felt like I HAD to. At that point, everyone I knew was pairing up, getting married, having kids – ticking all those boxes that we had been brainwashed since birth to believe were the ONLY things that gave life meaning.

At that point, I felt like the odd one, the weirdo who was holding out for something that didn’t exist. Maybe saving your first kiss for someone special was a myth that only existed in movies. As one of my friends put it, what was more important was experience. And apparently, I need lots and lots of those.

Needless to say, my first kiss was a flop, I never saw the guy again because he wanted to get serious after only the second date and I knew I didn’t like him that way. He was just a box I needed to tick, and I think I know now that every dating experience I’ve ever had were like that. I felt like I HAD to date, I HAD to make the effort, otherwise I was going to spend my entire life alone, the lonely spinster perpetually thinking about what might have been, the old lady who spends winters by the fireplace knitting, surrounded by cats – alone, lonely, LOVELESS.

Bollocks to that.

It took me quite a long time (and a lot of bad dating experiences) to accept that alone didn’t have to mean lonely. That relationships were not the be all and end all of the universe. That if people judge me for not being in a relationship, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with me, it meant there was something wrong with them. In fact, there is something wrong with a world that measures your value only by your ability to be with another person.

There are all kinds of love apart from the intensely passionate and romantic pairings we see in the movies or read about in books. There’s love for your family, a love for your friends, and a love for yourself.

I think about, for example, the kind of relationship I have with my sister. Growing up, she was this pesky, annoying, bothersome person who taped over my Spice World cassette tape (I wanted to murder her for that, but my mum wouldn’t let me) and read my diaries. Now she’s one of my best friends, one of the few people who call me on my bullshit and never let me think too highly of myself, who will feed me when I’m hungry and make me tea when I’m sick, who will send me recommendations from the British Heart Council every time my hypochondriac brain acts up and I send her a text saying ‘I think I’m having a heart attack’.

You can’t tell me that that kind of love, that that kind of relationship, is somehow less because its not romantic.

As I get older, I’ve learned to make peace with who I am: I’m never going to be conventionally attractive but I love the way I look most of the time. I like to work. Other people will think that’s sad but they do them and I do me. I’d rather read and write than climb walls and fly off aeroplanes. I’m never going to be the most fun person at a party but I’m still fairly okay at making conversation with people. I’ve fallen in love (or thought I did) a few times. Only one or two have been real, to be honest. But throughout all that, my biggest relationship has always been with myself.

And just like any relationship, it has its ups and downs and days when I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, but I find a way to forgive myself and to promise to do better, to be better, because I want to go to bed at night assured that I liked the person I was today. You can’t tell me that that is somehow less important just because its not really a relationship in the conventional sense.

I have rambled on as usual. Several paragraphs in and I haven’t even talked about the book yet…but everything I just said is essentially what Loveless by Alice Osman is about: the idea that there are all kinds of love, that sexuality is a broad spectrum of things from straight to asexual and aromantic, that no one gets to define what gives your life meaning apart from YOU. The book is messy, cringy, annoying, intense, funny, ridiculous heartwarming and ultimately, a real JOY to read.

I wanted to give up on it halfway through because I thought, meh, I wouldn’t be able to relate to this. I was just about to give it a DNF rating on Goodreads but I have a real aversion to not finishing a book, it just feels wrong to me. So I carried on, and I’m so so glad I did. Because despite my experiences and my sexuality being totally different from Georgia’s, the main protagonist, the whole point of the book is that love may mean all kind of things to all kinds of people, but each meaning is important, and if we could only see how universal it is because of those differences, the world would be a much better place.

The whole point of Loveless is that every story is a love story, well let me tell you one of my favourites:

I’d been living in London for 5 years and I had avoided riding the London Eye because I was saving it for when I finally had someone special to share the moment with. But in 2016, my father came for a visit. It had taken him nearly three years to process his passport, but finally, he was here, in a city that he’d only read about or saw in movies. The London Eye was something we came across on the telly back home on New Year’s Eve; we would gather around and watch the fireworks display as a family. And now there we were, riding one of the pods, just as the sun was starting to set.

Anyone who’s ever been on the London Eye will tell you that its excruciatingly slow, and at 15 minutes in you just want it to be over. But my Dad could not stop looking down on the Thames, and on all of London literally beneath our feet. And the whole time I had this big smile on my face when I looked around and realised, holy shit, my family was with me in my favourite city in the world. It was a magical moment. Better than any first kiss fantasies I’ve ever had.

Whoever you are, whatever your orientation, whether you’re alone or in a relationship right now, you deserve magical moments like that. You deserve joy.

Who knows what the future holds? Maybe next week I meet the love of my life and be married by the end of the year. Maybe I won’t.

But regardless, I wouldn’t consider myself loveless, because without even knowing or fully appreciating it, I am and have always been loved. And that is what makes this book so great. That is the message. Whether you’re gay, straight, bi, pan, ace, trans, queer, alone or in a relationship, we see you, and you are loved.

Book rating: 5 amazing stars

Posted in Books, Current Events, Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Talking To Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

When I was in my twenties, I went out a lot. Being single in a city full of other single people, and being financially independent for the first time in my life with no parents telling me to be home by eleven, I grabbed every opportunity to have new experiences, and I was obsessed with meeting people and making as many new friends as I could. I subscribed to the belief that the stranger sitting next to you on the bus or the person wanting to share your table in a coffee shop was a friend just waiting to be discovered (not that this ever happened to me, but you know, the thought is nice).

I pride myself on being a good judge of character, of having enough emotional intelligence, empathy and sensitivity to read a person or read a room. In all my job interviews I would list “excellent interpersonal skills” first when asked about my strengths. If pressed, I would describe myself as generally likeable and popular. I’m good with people and people are good with me.

And yet, like so many of us, I invariably screw up in my interactions with others. I read someone wrong, I fail to see when someone is lying to me, I misinterpret other people’s actions and act on that misinterpretation, often to the detriment of that particular relationship; I give out personal information that have then been used against me, I have judged or lashed out at someone who I then found was more or less innocent of any wrongdoing. Where were my excellent interpersonal skills in those instances?

If you’ve ever asked yourself the same question, then Talking to Strangers is the book for you. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a book that EVERYONE should read.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that as a society we fail utterly and completely when we are required to talk to strangers, and that this can sometimes lead to tragic circumstances, such as the death of YouTuber Sandy Bland, who was stopped at a motor highway in Texas by a police officer for the flimsiest of reasons.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, I found it interesting that a prominent author seemed to suggest that BOTH Sandy Bland and Officer Brian Encinia were victims of this very human failure. I thought for sure that he would denounce Officer Encinia in the same way I did after having read that brief transcript of the “arrest”. Five sentences into it and I came to the conclusion that he was a complete dick, a moron who had no right to be in the position of authority he was in. I also came to the conclusion that you could not pay me enough to live in America, where these kind of “arrests” are more or less commonplace.

But Malcolm Gladwell just spent an entire book providing facts, compelling arguments and studies to support his statement that the root of the Sandy Bland problem lies not in bad policing and the screwed up American justice system, but in the realm of how we understand each other as human beings. Or more accurately, how we MISunderstand each other.

First, he discussed how human beings operate on a ‘default to truth‘ setting. This may seem laughable to those of us who believe that we are living in an increasingly cynical world where, more often than not, doubt and mistrust are the order of the day. But apparently, when confronted with an obvious lie or doubts about someone we know, it would take a whole lot of evidence to push us beyond the threshold of belief. We will always try to explain away or rationalise anything unexpected. Basically it takes a million red flags for us to believe that someone respected would be, say, a child molester. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

And yet Malcolm Gladwell cites incidences of pedophile activity that went unchecked for years before the perpetrators were finally arrested; in some cases, a full decade after the first complaint. Larry Nassar, who was the doctor for USA Gymnastics, molested hundreds of girls before any kind of conviction was made, and even as the case went to court, there were people who defended him up until the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore.

There is apparently no way for us to separate the people who are telling the truth from those who are telling lies; not even the most hardened judge or law enforcement official has it down to an exact science.

We are simply built to assume that people tell the truth until we find incontrovertible proof that they’re not. Many anthropologists have suggested that this default to truth setting is fundamental for society to continue functioning as we know it. We cannot live our lives perpetually suspicious that people are lying to us, because if that were the way everyone operated, everything would stop: relationships, governments, economies – nothing would get done. So we take the occasional betrayal on the chin, because to change our internal settings so that it defaults to lies…well this was what happened with Brian Encinia. His training went too much the other way; it all but conditioned him to believe the worst of others, so that a woman who was merely upset suddenly becomes a potential threat.

Which leads to another interesting thing that was brought up in this book: Transparency, the idea (originated by Charles Darwin, I think) that “the face has developed into some kind of billboard for the heart” borne out of the need to communicate “quickly and accurately” with each other. A smiling face means someone is happy, a lowered brow is a portent of doom, a blush signals embarrassment, and a fidgety attitude is almost akin to an admission of guilt.

Macolm Gladwell refutes Darwin, and in fact he called this chapter ‘The Friends Fallacy”, because he believes this erroneous notion stems from our copious ingestion of sitcoms such as Friends, where everything an actor is feeling is evident in their facial expressions, physical gestures, and body language. He presents a lot of studies that give evidence to the contrary, including studies conducted among remote tribes that live somewhere that’s relatively untouched by modern development. For these people, uplifted corners of the lips doesn’t necessarily equate to an expression of happiness.

Furthermore, if we follow the whole “everyone lies” train of thought, we know that everyone is capable of schooling their expression into something that actually hides their true feelings. I’ve done it myself. I’ve come into work feeling like shit, and yet I put on red lipstick and a smile on my face and no one can tell the difference. And it’s not just facial expression either, its all the other nuances you glean information from when you have a face to face interaction.

Inflection, for one. A polite tone is interpreted as someone liking you or agreeing with what you’re saying. But the British, for example, are masters at the art of damning someone with politeness. They do it so well that it took me years to see how one of my favourite surgeons can cut someone to the bone and still sound like he was asking someone if they wanted a cup of tea, and when I did finally see it in action, it made me wonder how many times I may have been patronised and insulted…but it all just went over my head.

Even more disturbing, there are cases that suggest we get it particularly wrong if the person is a mismatch, meaning, their outward demeanour reflects the opposite of what they’re actually feeling. The nervous fidgety person may just that way by nature, but because we are built to believe that nervous and fidgety equals liar, he or she get wrongfully accused. Or worse, in the case of Amanda Knox, whose kooky, slightly loony character was turned into this femme fatal persona by the international press (who really ought to be ashamed of themselves) and the Italian authorities, you get jailed for four years and scarred for life.

Terrifying. I watched the Amanda Knox documentary after reading this book, and it really struck me when she said that her story could so easily be my story. If they get things like that wrong all the time…I would really hate to be on the receiving end of a police investigation where everything I say, everything I do, every emotion that shows on my face, would be dissected and potentially used against me. I might never trust the system again, actually. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the book, but its what I’m taking away from it. We can’t trust our own judgment of strangers, the way society has been built and the way we were taught from birth simply doesn’t support it.

So what do we do? Well, there’s only thing we can do, really, and this is what I love about the book. It isn’t so much a book that will “help” you talk to strangers but rather it will raise an awareness that we can’t: we will never get it right all the time, but we will get it right sometimes, and we have to accept that “sometimes” is probably the best we can hope for.

And somehow, we need find a way to forgive ourselves if our errors in judgment lead to devastating consequences, like Sandy Bland and Amanda Knox and all of Larry Nassar’s victims.

This is what it means to be human.

Rating: 5 stars