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

Posted in Books, Nursing, Reviews, Self-Discovery

Book Review: Mindset – Carol S. Dweck (With a Side Helping of Reflection, as Always)

Last month, I was working at a private hospital in London where I sometimes do shifts to earn extra cash. For those new to this blog, my day job (when I’m not pretending to be a writer) is to assist surgeons in the operating room as a scrub nurse. Fifty years from now, I will probably still be drooling over dreamy, dark-haired, scalpel-wielding individuals with serious God complexes, like this woman from the Grey’s Anatomy series:

Can MerDer please stop their drama so I can go pee, please?

Anyway, I was working with one of my favourite surgeons in the world. It had been about 3 months since we’d worked together because COVID had made everything apart from cancer operations come to a grinding halt. We were about to do a robotic partial knee replacement on a patient with severe arthritis, a procedure which will take too long to explain on a blog so I’m just going to say that it is the Iron Man of orthopaedic procedures, 100% patient satisfaction guaranteed (I do not get paid to say this by the way, this is just my own opinion lol).

Don’t you just love technology?

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is somewhat good at what they do, and I’ve been doing orthopaedics for seven years – some people would probably even go so far as to call me an expert (and they’d be wrong). But it’s not overstating it to say that scrubbing for the robot always scared the ever living hell out of me. I don’t know why, but from the time they started training us on this technology, I’d felt as if there was this microchip in my brain that blocks my ability to learn this procedure. I think maybe its because the robot came at a point in my life when I had so much on my plate that I didn’t have the time to learn something new.

That’s a lie.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the robot technology came at a point in my life when I’ve already reached a certain level of seniority and success, that I was SCARED to learn something new…because I might fail at it.

Enter Carol S. Dweck’s book.

I started reading Mindset a couple of days after that robotic knee procedure. I was feeling a bit down in the dumps because that night I felt like the most clueless novice ever to hold a surgical power tool in an operating theatre. It was so bad that one of the other scrub nurses jokingly asked me if it was my first time to scrub for this procedure. The robot specialist was a good friend of mine, and bless her, she probably didn’t think she’d had to work so hard to support me during the case. I mean, seriously, I help organise training sessions for this shit. It was bloody embarrassing.

So after a period of intense reflection, I finally realised that the reason I never ‘got’ the robot was because I never bothered to learn it properly. Like I said, by the time it was introduced I was already a senior scrub nurse. I was a team leader, I was training other people in orthopaedics, and I’ve probably developed a bit of an ego about it. I am the best, I know everything, how dare this new thing suddenly appear and disturb my mojo? No, I do not need to work hard at it. Study the op tech, are you kidding? Actually ask questions to clarify what I don’t understand? No way, Jose. I don’t want to diminish my status among my peers.

What a pile of rubbish.

Dr. Dweck writes that there are two types of mindset in this world: a Fixed Mindset, where you “believe that your qualities are carved in stone, which then creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” and a Growth Mindset, which is based on the belief that it is not the qualities you are born with that is important so much as the effort you put in to learn and grow and develop.

It would not take Dr. Dweck more than 10 minutes of conversation with me to figure out that I am of the former category. Overachiever as a kid, check. Perpetually told by family and friends how great and smart they were, check. Spends the majority of their adult years turning themselves inside out to prove their worth, needs constant validation to make them feel good about themselves, hides their insecurities underneath a load of hubris – check, check, AND check.

There is nothing worse than feeling like a fraud. Reading this made me realise that all my life I’ve been trying to live up to this sort of alter-ego that I’ve created for myself. Through sheer dumb luck, and okay, a little bit of intelligence and effort, I’ve achieved things in my life that make other people think, omigod, she’s so great. But I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually felt great. Most of the time, I honestly feel like I’m just doing my best to get by. This isn’t false humility. I truly feel that I do not live up to other people’s expectations of me and what I can do. BUT I HAVE TO TRY ANYWAY. Because to lose that, to lose their regard, would be a blow to my self-esteem. I have built my whole life around what other people think of me, what will I do if they suddenly find out I am nothing but extremely average?

So you plod along, and pretend, and you start making choices based on this belief that to be SEEN as good is more important than actually BEING good. You start to deprive yourself of the opportunity to stretch and learn something new because you’re afraid of that natural dip that one experiences when one is on a learning curve…your ego cannot take the risk that you might actually be given honest feedback about what you can do to improve, so you also surround yourself with people who will only tell you good things about your work, and you somehow manage to convince your brain that those who criticise you are simply out to get you.

What a way to live, huh? I read it back again after I’ve written it and I’m exhausted. And I’ve literally just described myself so that means…I EXHAUST MYSELF. I have no idea where or when it started (I’d like to think I wasn’t born like this) but the one thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to live like this anymore. When I finished this book, I made a vow that I was going to try and be better. And to be better means being honest about my weaknesses, to accept the fact that there are things that I lack…and that’s okay, because once I’ve accepted that I need help to learn, I can then go about seeking that help and actually learning.

One of the first things I wrote in my diary after I finished this book is this statement (and I’ve been saying it to anyone who will listen ever since): I AM NOT NATURALLY INTELLIGENT. I am not the kind of person who sees something and instinctively learns it with a snap of a finger. I need explanations and reasons. I need the how’s and the why’s. I need structure, I need processes.

And godammit, I can’t learn under pressure. I have never been a crammer…seriously, when we were in college I started studying for midterms A FULL MONTH before the exams. In the weeks leading up to a big exam I would start to live like a hermit. I once spent 20 hours (10 hours straight on Saturday and another 10 on Sunday) studying for my Anatomy and Physiology finals. I think I ended up vomiting at the end of the day, it got a bit too much.

The takeaway from that little anecdote is that rather than being naturally intelligent, I am someone who puts in the effort to learn. And it used to really annoy me that I spend all that time studying, only to find out that another person in my year, who studies like, five hours before a test (and who actually has the time to go clubbing the weekend before an exam) had gotten a bloody better grades than me. What sorcery is this?? How is this fair?

And people celebrate that. People are more likely to admire people who achieve with very little effort, because by definition, putting in effort apparently means you’re not good enough, that you’re somehow less because you have to try a bit harder.

Dr. Dweck (and now me) says: BOLLOCKS.

She says, “no matter what your ability is, EFFORT is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment”. My classmate was obviously an extremely lucky exception, like some kind of prodigy, but there’s no reason to feel bad for not being gifted…like how many true prodigies do you actually personally know?? That’s right. Not a lot. The rest of us have to get by on effort, and that should be equally celebrated.

A week after my disastrous attempt at scrubbing for the robot, I called up my friend Melanie and asked if we could meet up and go through the procedure from start to finish. I studied even before our meeting; I made notes, and I listed down the things I didn’t understand. When we were going through it, I asked all the questions that I didn’t think to ask the first time I learned this because I thought it would make me look stupid. I asked for tips on how to remember certain stuff. I asked her to make drawings and illustrations if there was something I didn’t get. I prepared. I made the damn effort.

And the next time I scrubbed for the robot, well, I don’t like to brag…but I did it very well. And what’s more, I felt like for the first time I truly understood it rather than just pretending to understand it, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve consistently been able to scrub for it with little trouble since then.

And just to add to this: other people didn’t really see the difference. Apparently, I had blown up the previous incident and I really didn’t do as bad as I thought I did. But I FELT THE DIFFERENCE. I didn’t need other people’s validation because true growth and accomplishment through learning and effort was the only validation I needed.

It was such a great feeling, and trying to carry this newfound mentality meant that, maybe for the first time in my life, I was no longer setting myself on fire trying to “convince others and myself that I have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried you have a pair of tens.”

I may not have a royal flush (yet) but I’ve come to peace with my pair tens, and we know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I loved this book and thought it was a total 5 STAR READ.

Posted in bloggers, Books, relationships, science fiction, science fiction, Writing

Book Review: The Garden and Other Stories – Aaron Ramos

In my head, I always equated the science fiction genre with weird looking aliens invading the earth and machines taking over the world and sending mankind into extinction. I was quite adamant in my belief that these are things I’d never be interested in reading. I’ve gotten better at expanding my horizons when it comes to my literary choices, but I’m a creature of habit; throughout the years I’ve stuck with the genres that are almost guaranteed to tickle my fancy – YA and romance to name a few.

I picked up The Garden, a collection of short stories written by Aaron Ramos, because I was fortunate enough to have gotten a preview, a taster really, of the kind of stories that this new author wants to share with the world. Elevated was one of the first sci-fi stories I’ve ever read, and I enjoyed it so much that afterwards I questioned my sanity at having ignored this genre for so long. Clearly, I’ve been missing out.

The book opens with Video Game Theory, which is really a story about a father’s love for his daughter – a truly emotional journey that still haunts me now, nearly a full month after I first read it. I’m a very emotional reader anyway, and to those of you who read my reviews quite often, this isn’t anything new, but as I read that story I was sobbing my heart out and clutching my chest in a way I haven’t done since I read The Kite Runner. Maybe it was just because I read it during the pandemic when I was missing my own father, but I thought it was just a real gut punch of a story. The book then closes with Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a short story that questions the very nature of our existence, exploring life’s often unanswerable questions with wit and biting humour that I’ve come to realise is the author’s signature style.

A lot of thought was put into the pacing, the sequencing, and I think even the order in which the stories are to be read. I like how one story just naturally flows, one into the other. There was always a sense of continuity and connectivity in all the stories, and I think a lot of what makes it so cohesive is rooted in Aaron’s point of view, his unique perspective of the world, and the kind of messages that he wants to send out to his readers through his writing.

In some respects, this book felt to me like a social commentary on the dangers of capitalism and the effect man is having on the environment. In other parts, it was a call for us to recognise that, despite our differences, we are all the same, and the things that make us all different should be celebrated rather than discriminated against. Considering that this book was published well before the Black Lives Matter movement, I think the author showed incredible foresight, not to mention insight, into the issues currently affecting society.

I am not an expert of this genre, obviously, but I thought the stories were well-researched; they were believable because they were founded on real scientific concepts. They capture the imagination and will make readers imagine a world that is somewhat similar to our own but also somehow different. However, what makes the stories even stronger, in my opinion, is that through it all Aaron never loses his grip on the human element of his stories. Strip away the robots, the advanced technologies, the chemical experiments and the fantastical elements and you find that at the heart of it are the very things that make us fundamentally human: love, loss, and the basic human need to understand and to be understood.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Young Adult

Book Travels: The City of Weep and beyond with the Muse of Nightmares

The first time I read this book I was so excited to finish it that I think I missed some of the finer points of the story. I was looking through my notes on this and 2019 me felt all confused and conflicted about the ending of this book, whereas 2020 me thinks its pretty darn awesome!

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the key to any successful fantasy or dystopian series is world building. I believe the great JRR Tolkien created an entirely new language while he was writing The Lord of the Rings; there are kids out there who still dream of receiving a Hogwarts acceptance letter when they turn 11, because JK Rowling made it as real to them as their own local middle school.

Albeit on a much smaller scale, in this book Laini Taylor has done something similar to what those literary giants. For the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, she’s shown us the broader world that exists outside of the City of Weep and in so doing, opened possibilities for an infinite number of stories. I’m already ablaze with excitement at the thought of the many spin-offs she could do and the number of directions she can take from this point.

Of course, the City of Weep is still at the heart of this story, and so are the characters that readers would have become so invested on from the first book. There is so much character growth in this book and we finally get a clear picture of just how much of the present has been shaped by the past. Special shout out to my favourite side characters, Minya and Thyon Nero!

Expect a really satisfying conclusion to the series. I really like how it all comes full circle, and I especially like how its evolved into more than just another YA love story.

If you’re new to Laini Taylor’s writing, I’m jealous that you still have so much of her works to discover. Might I suggest the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which is just as incredible and also somewhat related to this one?

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars!

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Uncategorized

Book Travels: The City of Weep and Strange the Dreamer

When we grow up, it feels like some force of nature compels us to stop dreaming big dreams, and in some cases it also forces us to let go of the dreams we already had to begin with.

How tragic and how sad it is to live that way.

I think this is why I read fantasy. It keeps my imagination alive, and sometimes – and especially when reality starts becoming so heavy and all too real – its one of the few things that keeps me believing that impossible things could still happen, that it would still be possible to have miracles for breakfast.

Laini Taylor is one of THE best writers in this genre. Her books, pardon the cliche, are like pages and pages of poetry compiled into one single cohesive work. For the uninitiated, it might seem extra and oversaturated with enough saccharine sweetness to make you want to puke. I can’t deny that I get impatient with it sometimes, especially when you just want to know what happens next but you’re treated to an internal monologue about stars and moons and butterflies and everything that is fluffy in the world.

But that’s just me being cynical.

Strange the Dreamer is Laini at her best. Its the story of a young orphan named Lazlo Strange, a small seemingly insignificant young man with big dreams that, one day, literally came riding into his life. His is a tale to inspire, to remind people that even when others mock you for it, you should always hold on to your dreams; or maybe it wasn’t so much dreaming as it was the fulfilment of one’s destiny. Whatever it was, I found Lazlo’s story such a joy to follow. He has always been one of my favourite book characters (yes, yes, this is technically a reread).

The City of Weep is at the centre of all of Lazlo’s yearnings and imagination, but the reality of it was bigger than even he could have ever dreamed of. Weep is a city with a tragic backstory. I applaud Laini Taylor’s courage to explore some really dark themes in what is essentially a YA book, but then these are dark times. I keep forgetting that the young adults of today are no longer as ignorant about the sufferings of the world as I was when I was 14 or 15. This fast-paced and sometimes cruel world we live in forces you to grow up quick.

There is of course a love story at the heart of Strange the Dreamer; it was given quite a lot of air time but it wasn’t the most compelling part of the story for me. I personally thought Lazlo and Sarai were more interesting apart than they were together but then again, this could just be ME: my state of mind not being in the mood for giddy romance and all. In fact, is it a reflection of my state of mind that I found the anti-heroes Minya and Thyon Nero and the flawed and tortured Eril-Fane so much more interesting? Maybe. What this tells you, dear readers, is that this is a book with a deep back bench. Its secondary characters add salt and pepper to what would have otherwise been just another okay but somewhat bland star-crossed love story.

Its been a real pleasure travelling to and through the City of Weep (again), with its endless supply of stories and legends. I’m staying here for a little while longer as I’m currently reading the sequel, where things get even more juicy and sinister and interesting – all the requirements you need for a really good book.

Check this book out, its really awesome! 4 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Book Travels: Afghanistan and A Thousand Splendid Suns

It’s difficult for me to write this book review of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

It’s a well-written book, let’s get that out of the way. Khaled Housseini has a real talent for telling stories, and for sharing a little bit of Afghan culture to the world. His words make the country come alive for the reader, making them feel like they’re sharing the blistering heat of the sun or the welcome pouring of rain with the characters. I especially like the little touches of whimsy, such as the fact that Titanic and Leonardo di Caprio were apparently big enough to be trending even in war-torn Afghanistan.

I think what made this book difficult for me to read, and therefore to review, is because the subject matter pushes all my buttons. At the heart of it, this is a story about two women who were both victims of circumstances beyond their control. Their whole life they’ve not been given any choices, they’ve never been able to have a say about what they want or what future they might have imagined for themselves. They’re forced to wait for life to happen to them; they’re not free to make things happen by design.

I hate that.

I hate that in some parts of the world this is still considered normal. I hate that some of the freedom and privileges that I take for granted all the time may seem like a miracle for a woman whose never been allowed to even speak in a man’s presence, let alone argue with them. I hate that, despite our best effort, we are still a long way away from achieving equality. I would never presume to call myself a feminist, and God knows I haven’t got a bone of activism in my body. But I nearly wanted to sound a call to arms when I read the scene about women having to go to a different hospital because the one they’re at only caters to male patients; and then to arrive at a women’s hospital and find the amenities so lacking that you have to reuse sterile gloves, or bloody hell, have a caesarian section without any anaesthesia.

Both as a woman and as a healthcare professional, I was so horrified by this that I nearly stopped reading the book.

I also hate that there are still pockets of society, even in this modern world we live in, where people think that bearing children is all a woman is good for. If that’s the case, then I am the sorriest excuse for a woman there is.

The book may or may not have hit a bit too close to home.

In the end, this book made me feel grateful: grateful for my education, grateful that my parents worked hard to give me options, that despite their reservations about my lifestyle (and their increasing desire for grandchildren lol) they respect me enough not to force the issue of marriage. I mean, it’s not like eligible men grow on trees these days, and even if they did its kinda hard to get to know someone when you have to social distance or hold a first date through Zoom.

There is something symbolically powerful about a woman standing up for another woman, and there is a lot we can achieve when we build each other up rather than tear each other down. Such is the message of this book, and this is what makes it so beautiful.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Book Review: The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

One of the sacrifices we’ve had to make during this pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, is to forego all non-essential travel. As someone who likes to explore all the beautiful places this world has to offer, this saddens me. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated the extreme privilege of being able to move freely between countries, or of having opportunities to experience various cultures and different ways of life.

Its times like these that I’m grateful for the solace that reading has to offer. Between the pages of a book, the possibilities of being transported to a time and place far far away from my current reality are limitless. Reading is the only way that I can still afford to travel to different places, for the bargain price of 8£ per paperback.

Today’s travel took me to 1970s Afghanistan. In the list of places I would never even consider travelling to, Afghanistan is superseded only by, I don’t know, North Korea maybe. It first came to my attention during the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, a watershed moment that brought terrorism to my consciousness. I remember watching the news and thinking life will never be the same. I read about jihad and holy wars and understood for the first time that there are some men willing to fight, kill and die for the sake of an ideology. Nearly 20 years later and those same was are still being fought.

The Kite Runner is as far away from war and terrorism as anything could be. Sure, it is set against the backdrop of conflicts and coups. One cannot tell this story without also touching on the many political changes that made the country what it is today.

But to tell the story of Amir and Hassan is to tell the story of a different kind of Afghanistan. Its an Afghanistan that is colourful and exciting; it is a place where you can write stories, read books about heroes, and watch American Westerns in the cinema; it is a place where young children anticipate winters so they can have kite-flying tournaments and make their parents proud when they win; and it is a place where friendship, love and loyalty can still exist despite divisions in class and religion.

I told my sister today that when all this ends, I’d quite like to visit Afghanistan. She asked me, do you want to die?

I googled a photo of Kabul as it is today, and it depressed me to see its war-torn streets and ravaged population. it forced me to think that, for all that we moan and groan about anything and everything that inconvenience us on a daily basis, we live an insulated world where we are mostly protected from true horrors, from the true meaning of human suffering. I think reading books like this is important, if only for the fact that they give you just a little bit of perspective.

Stories like this underscore the need for us to really nourish and cherish the things that are truly important. Not money, status or power, or other transient sources of happiness; but simple things like the thrill of feeling love for the first time, the pleasures of reading for and with a friend, the pure joy and freedom of running through familiar streets and knowing you are limited only by how far you are willing to run, and when you’re young sometimes you feel like you can run forever.

I think in a time where there is so much uncertainty, this book gives me hope. There are days when I can barely bring myself to read the news because there’s so much filth and stories of human cruelty permeating the headlines and the social media feeds. To read a book about unconditional love and unswerving faithfulness at a time like this…well, I’m already an emotional person at the best of times, the sort that will cry in films like Stuart Little, so it will come as a surprise to no one when I say that this book had me sobbing into my pillow for a good 15 minutes, pounding my chest as if to help ease the ache I suddenly felt there.

There’s no better review than that really, is there?

I’m late to this particular party, I know. My friends have been telling me to read this for years. Its made many a readers’ favourites list on Goodreads and Instagram, even friends of mine who are not avid readers have read this book. They all told me its awesome, they warned me it will be emotional. But none of that prepared me for the reality of it, for the sheer emotional punch of the story within its pages.

To say that I’ve read a lot of books is an understatement. I must have reads thousands and thousands of them by now. Some good, some I had to force myself to finish, some whose stories have stayed with me to this day. The Kite Runner belongs in the third category: I will be thinking about this book on and off for a long long time.

Posted in Books, Careers, Health and Well-Being, Lifestyle, Reviews, Self-Discovery

Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – Mark Manson

It’s not very often that you find the kind of book you need at the exact same moment in which you need it. Call it fate, call it kismet, call it in act of divine intervention, but this book found its way into my loving arms just when I needed it the most.

I was in the operating theatre one day when I got into an argument with a particularly obnoxious Fellow over specimen labels, of all things. She thought she was right and I was wrong, and I was just as convinced of the opposite. I was so enraged that she wouldn’t just do what I told her to do (because I was right, goddamit) that I went storming into the manager’s office, ranting and raving like a lunatic, begging them to please do something about this stubborn incompetent fool.

On my way back to the theatre I felt the faint stirrings of pain on the centre of my chest and (I imagined) somewhere on my left shoulder (or left back, I wasn’t really sure). Bearing in mind that I’ve been having blood pressure problems for a while now, you can see why I would suddenly feel anxious and almost panicky. I became so convinced that I was having a heart attack right then and there that I very nearly excused myself from theatres so I can go to the A and E.

As you can probably tell I did not, in fact, have a heart attack thank goodness. Shortly before this incident, I had two large sausages and a piece of bacon for lunch. And because I was in a hurry to scrub for the next procedure, I had inhaled all this food in a hurry and was finished with my lunch break in five minutes. So what I probably had was a mild case of indigestion (although the hypochondriac in me still believes there’s merit in assuming and being prepared for the worst).

That moment really opened my eyes and made me think about a lot of things. Like the fragility of life. Like how much I let what other people think affect me emotionally and psychologically. Like the number of things I give a fuck about that I will probably forget in five years or less. Like how fucking pissed I would be if I died because of a bloody specimen form and miss out on all the wonderful things I have to look forward to this year, like my parents coming for a visit, and the Tiu Family Reunion we’re planning on Christmas.

And then I picked up The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. This is a book that generated a lot of buzz when it came out last year (I think) and numerous friends and acquaintances have been encouraging me to read it for a while now, but I’ve always been kinda skeptical about it. I’m not into self-help books to be honest, I’ve always found it kinda hokey, and the authors always came across as being self-righteous, not to mention self-congratulatory.

This book felt more like a friend. It was funny, endearingly self-deprecatory and perhaps more importantly, extremely relatable. I identified with a lot of the situations Mark wrote about, and with the experiences he’s shared. I’m not saying it’s perfect, nor do I agree with all of it (I think something in me rebelled at the thought of accepting that I will always be ordinary). But in the three weeks it took me to finish it, I have made some changes that I think will be healthier for me in the long run.

While reading it I’ve been forced to think about my values, and to examine the metrics by which I measure success. I went for a run last week and my calves were hurting the whole time, which reduced my speed from slow to turtle pace. I felt so discouraged by the whole thing and nearly gave up on running altogether. But then I asked myself how I defined a successful run. What were my metrics? Was it finishing a 5k within a certain time frame? Was it being able to run longer distances every day? Was it being able to run pain-free? Because realistically speaking, if I only focused on those three things I’m almost guaranteed to fail at least about half the time.

What about the fact that I managed to wake up at the unholy hour of 5:30 in the morning four times a week and get my lazy arse off my comfy bed so that I can run before work? It’s currently averaging between 1 and 5 degrees in London at the moment, and those are temperatures that make you want to do the opposite of getting up and going outside.

But I do it every. single. time. And you know what, I realised that by doing that, I was already winning.

I made the executive decision that from that point onwards my metric for a successful run would simply be me getting up in the morning and showing up physically as well as mentally. And that’s when things changed. Every day I felt like I was winning a race. Every day felt like a triumph.

I stepped on a weighing scale two weeks after I started running and nearly wept. With abject misery. Because no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to stick to a healthy diet, counting calories like a miser counts coins, I just can’t seem to get that number on the scale to go down. What was the point of putting myself through all of it if I wasn’t achieving results?

Then I started monitoring my blood pressure twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. For the first time in a long long time, the readings were steady, and if not always normal they were not as astronomically high as they were this time last year. More than that, I’ve started feeling more positive, both at work and life in general. I’ve been able to deal better with difficult conversations, uncompromising colleagues, unfair criticisms and all the other curveballs that your personal and professional lives throw at you on a daily basis.

An anaesthetist saw me yesterday and noted that I seem more chilled and relaxed. Was that not some better measure of success than the number on my weighing scale?

In a way, the book was very liberating. One of its fundamental beliefs is that we would be much happier if we stop placing all these unrealistic expectations of ourselves to be something great, to be extraordinary, to make a lasting impact on the world, to be so amazing that we are immortalised and allowed to live on even when we’re dead. Jesus, that is a lot of pressure to place on our teeny tiny human bodies.

Apparently, the more we accept that we are just a tiny fraction of the world at large, that it is not always about us, and that we are not special and unique, the better off we will be. For someone who’s always been a bit type A, for someone who has always been ambitious, for someone who was groomed from childhood to draw happiness from other people’s approval of my achievements, this is quite a difficult pill to swallow.

But Mark Manson argues that the feeling we get from other people’s approval are only temporary highs, it’s not true happiness. In fact, we’re actually making ourselves unhappy by constantly chasing the feeling we get when people give us praise, whether in real life or in the form of likes on social media. When we seek validation from somewhere outside of ourselves, we’re planting the seeds of our own discontent and eventual unhappiness.

True happiness, he says, is actually borne out of suffering. Pain and struggle are necessary ingredients to happiness because “to be happy, we need something to solve”. And when we find that solution, it then creates a whole host of other problems for us to solve, forever and ever and ever, Amen. And this apparently is what keeps us happy. This is what defines us. We are defined by the pain we’re willing to sustain, the things we’re willing to struggle for.

I don’t know about you, but I kinda want a pain-free life where I don’t need to struggle.

But I see his point. To expect a life free from suffering is to be delusional. Instead, you need to choose what is worth struggling for. For example, is it really worth having daily arguments with a colleague just so you can prove you’re right? Do you take that job that offers a bigger salary but also comes with a whole host of responsibilities that take you further and further away from the thing that you really want to do? Are you willing to struggle through frustration, insecurities, and the fear of failure just so you can finally fulfil your lifelong dream of publishing a book?

I think about the pain I feel when I go for a 7k run: the lactic acid being released from my muscles causing pain in my legs, that feeling of being slightly out of breath – that I’m willing to endure. Because waiting for me on the other side of that pain are the endorphins released after a good run, the sense of achievement from simply being able to finish, knowing that you gave it your best effort, and of course, the prevention of a potential heart attack (sorry this is going to be a recurring theme).

Needless to say, I really really REALLY like this book. I would give it as a present to everyone I know if I could. There’s so much more I want to say about it, and there is so much more to discuss, but this post is seriously starting to reach dissertation lengths. I’d just like to end by saying that the best compliment I could give for it is that it forced me, a notorious speed reader, to slow down and really reflect on the messages that the author wants to impart: that you need to have better values, that sometimes even the littlest things are a measure of success, and that if you do have to give a fuck, choose what you want to give a fuck about.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, murder mystery, Politics

Book Review: The Last – Hanna Jameson

A post-apocalyptic version of And Then There Were None.

This was how the bookseller at my favourite Waterstones branch sold this book to me while I was paying for the four other books I’d already bought at the till. Needless to say, I left the bookstore that night with five books instead.

I love stories where characters from all walks of life find themselves in a single room or house or hotel. I think it creates a really interesting dynamic when you force people who would normally ignore each other on the street to interact on a daily basis. Add the apocalypse, the threat of starvation, cannibalism and murder and you get a really interesting read.

A professor of history who happened to be on a business trip in Switzerland finds himself in a hotel with twenty other people after a nuclear bomb destroyed half the major capitals of the world. They’re all stuck there, cut off from the Internet, all their iPhones and laptops dead or dying, and without a clue as to the survival of the rest of the human race.

So he thought to record the events after Day One (the apocalypse) for the sake of posterity, and most of his scribblings were about the rationing of food and water…until the day they found the body and realised there was a murderer in their midst.

The Last is a book that is as interesting as it is disturbing, the latter mostly because – with the way politics is these days – it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe in the possibility of a nuclear war ending life as we know it. The subtext was so clear that even I, who barely follow the news these days, could see the rebuke of Trump’s administration and the not-so-subtle dig and protest against his policies and everything the horrid man stands for.

Although there were certain parallels to Agatha Christie’s seminal work, this book was far from being a retelling or just another version of And Then There Were None. I was surprised by how little it actually focused on the murder, although Jon – the professor – became fixated on solving the mystery for want of something better to do.

To me, the book was more a story of survival than it is a mystery. It touched on the many different ways we find to cope with loss and grief, and the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to change our situations for the better. I liked how it asks readers to think about how much of our humanity we’re able to keep when the outlook is so bleak that you almost see everyone as an enemy, or as a potential source of sustenance.

I liked the juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the mundane. The joy of listening to music for the first time in a long long while against the scene where the survivors raid the nearest pharmacy for supplies. The happiness of seeing children play versus the sorrow of burying a little girl’s body. Getting drunk and high with your fellow man versus doing CPR on someone who tried to take his own life.

So was I a bit disappointed that this was nothing like And Then There Were None? Maybe.

The bookseller sold this to me under false pretences but at the end of the day, I am not that upset about it because while I was expecting this book to be just another murder/mystery I ended up with something more profound and certainly far more interesting instead.

It was well-written, funny, smart, emotional, political and almost painfully poignant. This is the kind of book that makes you think, that scares you because it hits far too close to home – which also means this is the kind of book that everyone should be reading right now. These are troubled times, and anything that makes people conscious about it, anything that starts a conversation that could maybe lead to change – anything like that I consider to be an absolute win.

Recommended for all you fans of the apocalypse, The Walking Dead and that movie where Sandra Bullock was blindfolded half the time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, Reviews, romance, Women's literature

Book Review: The Flatshare – Beth O’Leary

As any Londoner would tell you, one of the most difficult things about living in the capital is finding somewhere suitable to live.

And by suitable I mean somewhere clean, in a relatively safe area, easy to get to by normal means of transportation (preferably along the same tube line as your place of employment) and, most importantly, somewhere that will not cripple you financially such that you’re constantly living on beans and toast until the next pay day as you struggle to meet the exorbitant rent prices.

I have been known to tell my friends on occasion that I would seriously consider taking anyone as a partner if only for the purpose of having someone to share the rent with.

I know, its so totally not the most romantic of reasons to look for a boyfriend.

Beth O’Leary has managed to make the sad reality of London living accommodations into one of the most heartwarming and romantic love stories I’ve ever read, and trust me, I’ve been reading them since I was twelve.

Tiff and Leon have a sort of ships in the night relationship going in this book. By some weird combination of desperation and opposite work schedules, they manage to share a flat…without actually physically sharing it.

She works 9 to 5. He works night shifts as a nurse and is away on weekends. She sleeps on the left side of the bed and bakes cakes when she’s stressed. He has a brother that’s been wrongly imprisoned and he makes a mean mushroom stroganoff.

By sharing a living space they develop a tentative friendship that soon blossoms into something more. I love the little notes that they leave each other, and their first face to face meeting is epic and will have you in stitches.

The chemistry between them just leaps off the pages, whether they’re interacting via post-its or having heavy make-out sessions in some medieval castle. The story and their relationship unfolded in a way that felt natural and uncontrived.

I’ve said this a lot recently but that’s because its true: the older I get the more I appreciate the value of simplicity. Apart from a crazy ex-boyfriend there was a distinct and pleasant lack of unnecessary drama in this book. There was a tiny bit of angst but it was an understandable reaction to the situation and didn’t feel like it was placed there as a plot device.

The writing was good, the character development was even better. I love that Leon is a hospice nurse, they don’t write enough books about what we do in my opinion. I love the supporting cast, they felt like people that I would hang out and be friends with in real life.

The book was touching, funny and a reminder that there is room in our lives for the unconventional, and that amazing things can happen when you take a chance.

After reading this book I’m somewhat tempted to look for another flatmate myself if it means kickstarting my dormant love life into gear. BUT alas my housing contract specifically prohibits such things. Sad.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a light summer read to take your mind off the things that bring you worry. Escape into Tiff and Leon’s wonderful world of exotic Stockwell (haha), and you’ll turn the last page with a smile on your face.

4 out of 5 stars!