I was passing by Waterstones the other day and was reminded by the window display that June was actually Pride month, and as a proud ally I always post a book review to commemorate the fact that love is always love, no matter what form or shape it takes.
This year I thought I’d do a review on a couple of book series that my friend Nina recommended, which are classified under danmei, the Chinese equivalent of the popular Japanese BL (boy’s love lol) genre. These two serialisations have experienced a surge in popularity recently due to the release of a Netflix adaptation called The Untamed in 2019.
I was pretty skeptical about reading these at first, mostly because I’ve always judged my sister and cousin for being so obsessed about manga that they could talk about it for an entire dinner conversation, whilst I twirled my chopsticks and imagined poking my eye out with it just to relieve my boredom. Lol
But actually, as an avid reader and a lover of books, I should have realised sooner that a good story is a good story regardless of packaging. And once I started reading these…well, hooked doesn’t even begin to describe it. I have gone down a rabbit hole that has no end in sight and I am enjoying every second of the fall.
Both Heaven Official’s Blessing and Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation are fantasy novels; there’s a lot of magic and spells and gods and monsters involved. You also learn a lot about Chinese culture, traditions, and beliefs. More importantly, the fact that they even exist in a country where everything goes through extreme censorship, and where being gay is still largely unacceptable, is a damn miracle.
Living in London, I take it for granted sometimes that there are still countries where people are not free to be who they are and to love who they love. I mean, progress: China no longer imprisons anyone for being gay as far as I know; but they’re not exactly advocating for gay rights, equality, and freedom either.
Take The Untamed for example, which is the Netflix adaptation of one of these novels (and my current obsession, don’t judge me). They had to take out any hint of romantic love between the two male leads just so the series would pass censorship and be allowed to even air.
The writers and producers had to go through extreme lengths to satisfy fans of the novel and to convey to discerning viewers that Wei Wu Xian and Lan Zhan are more than just soul brothers, or whatever lame-ass term they came up with. Because the truth is, these guys are actually partners who are in a committed relationship.
The microscopic hints of love between the two characters on screen, the ones that actually passed censorship, are made more special because of the need to be covert and creative. This is also a running theme in the books, where love is not explicit, and its not something you can shout about from the rooftops.
Instead, its expressed in the most infinitesimal of gestures, in the smallest lift of the lips into a secret smile, in the things one does for another regardless of the personal cost. Its not so much the words you say, as much as it is the spaces between the words, in the moments of silence where words need not be said. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of purity very beautiful. Realistic, maybe not so much.
Still, I grew up in a typical Chinese family where we are not as effusive and demonstrative about our feelings as families in the Western world. I used to look at my parents and think, wow, this isn’t exactly the kind of stuff they write romance novels about, is it?
But actually, isn’t there romance in staying together even when there’s an option to leave, in fighting battles side by side, in being there for the person through sickness and health, and in the warm nights spent watching TV, comfortable in each other’s company, knowing you’ll never have to go through life alone?
I think that Western culture places a lot of emphasis in showing and proving your love, in saying the words “I love you” and needing to hear it said back. And that’s important. We need to be able to say and hear those things. But there is also a place for the spaces between words and the silence between actions.
In addition, in reading these books I am reminded that there are still places where people cannot afford to be demonstrative, where things need to go unsaid, where they have to rely on the weight of every subtle gesture to express how they feel.
I think Pride month is a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we still need to go so that everyone, including and especially people who’ve always felt different, will realise that there’s also a place in the world for them and the ones they love.
I’m really glad I gave these books a go, and I can’t wait for the rest of the English translations.
I wasn’t intending for this to be the topic of my first foray back into blogging (after about two months of the worst case of writer’s block I have ever experienced), but sometimes life happens and you just have to roll with the punches.
Writing has always been my preferred way of making sense of what’s happening in this increasingly confusing and bewildering world we live in, and a way to articulate how I feel about it.
This weekend, the American Supreme Court made a landmark ruling which overturned its previous 1943 ruling on Roe vs Wade, which had given women in America the freedom to decide whether or not they wanted to carry a baby to full term, essentially protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion.
I couldn’t stop thinking about all of this over the weekend, and I just happened to have a lot of time on my hands to think about it. I pored through the many articles, editorials, opinion polls, and celebrity tweets whilst on a 7-hour coach journey to the coast of Cornwall, because of course my holiday happened to fall on the week of the railway company strikes.
(Note: I didn’t have the option of driving because I’m in a state of perpetual procrastination about taking my theory test which would have enabled me to have a UK driver’s license. Ugh. I should really get on that).
The whole issue around Roe vs. Wade made me think about this book called Unwell Women, which I bought and read ages ago but never got around to reviewing for some reason. At the time of purchase, I was going through a phase where I was buying every book about women’s rights and gender equality that Waterstones had on their shelves, all to process my own thoughts and feelings about the prospect of living a life that most people I know would call non-traditional.
Unwell Women gave me a lot of insight into how women have been treated, mistreated, and been failed by medicine since time immemorial.
There was a time when a woman was defined by her uterus, when the most intelligent and enlightened minds of the time believed that the cause of any female illness was the migration of the womb to other parts of the body, which then caused a disturbance in the force (sorry, Star Wars reference).
Ever notice that the word hysteria and hysterectomy share the same prefix?
Yeah, they both originate from ‘hystero’ , the latin word for uterus, and no, a coincidence that is not.
The cure for any female malady was, of course, to get married, have sex and give birth to a number of babies – in that order, as each were seen as mutually exclusive of the other during the dark ages.
At the time, no one could even conceive of such a thing as endometriosis, now a well-researched and well-recognised medical condition deserving of proper treatment. No one knew what PCOS was, neither did anyone do a study on the effects of mental health on the physical body, or any other explanation that had nothing to do with a Wandering Womb.
All practising physicians were men who had absolutely no idea what it was like to have human beings and other things come out of their vagina. It seemed to me like the diagnoses and subsequent treatment for women’s illness were based on two things: the whims of the male imagination and the all-consuming agenda to keep women in their rightful place: at home, cooking dinner and taking care of the fruits of their loins.
Let’s have all women procreate, it will solve everything. This was basically the tagline of medical institutions, from Ancient Greece to the 19th century. It feels relevant to bring all this up now to highlight how far we’ve come in terms of medicine and gender equality, and how much further we have to go, especially when we keep re-treading the same steps and having the same old arguments.
There was a time when women didn’t have any say over their bodies andfor America it seems like that time has come again.
Like I said, I’ve been turning this over and over in my head trying to decide how I feel about it, and what to write about it. I grew up in a very religious country, and I have lived with consequences of internalised Catholicism for most of my adult life. I am still, for the most part, a practising Catholic, and in my hearts of hearts I am probably pro-life…but I am also pro-choice.
I feel very passionately about a person’s fundamental right to live their life on their own terms and not by how other people think they should live it, especially because I have often been of judgement in my own pursuit of independence. I have been the object of concern which is really nothing more than thinly-veiled pity, and the recipient of rude, intrusive questions about why I am still single at a time when most women my age have children in grade school.
I spent all of my late 20s and most of my early 30s swiping left and right on various dating apps, and going through an endless, repetitious (wasteful) cycle of swipe, text, meet, drink, ghost, repeat….and for what? For the dubious pleasure of having met societal and familial expectations? To force myself into a box labelled ‘in a relationship’ when I knew that none of the guys I met online were right or worth giving up my freedom for?
No, thank you.
I’m going to try and make myself and my position clear before I come to the end of this very long (and probably incoherent) blog post.
I am not an advocate of abortion, the thought absolutely pains me.
I am not against traditional relationships with the right partner, at the right place, at the right time and under the right circumstances.
I have every respect for mothers and housewives and those that have chosen to devote their life to their children. In fact, I am in awe of them.
I am a Christian through and through.
But I also don’t see the point of cramming morality down other people’s throats or preaching proverbs from the Bible to teenagers who are victims of rape and incest. It won’t help them. At least, not until they get proper medical care.
The overturning of Roe vs Wade has made it difficult for them and women like them, who are also a victim of unwanted circumstances, to get access to that. The Supreme Course has instead put them in a position where they are staring down the barrel of a future they never wanted or asked for.
I am, above anything else, an advocate of women’s choices. I believe they are more than qualified to make them, and therefore those choices should be heard, validated, honoured and respected.
Oh that’s right. I’m meant to be doing a book review. Suffice to say that Unwell Woman is an incredible book which charts the history of women’s eternal struggle for equality as told from the perspective of medicine and health care. From wandering wombs to witch hunts, from birth control pills to abortion, its all there, and its never been more relevant as it is now.
There is no such thing as absolute freedom. The world turns on a series of checks and balances, but those checks and balances should rightfully remain in the hands of the individual, not other people, and certainly not the government. The only person who will live through the consequences of your choices is YOU after all. Its only common sense that you get first say on what those choices ought to be.
Its often hard to objectively review the quality of a book when its subject matter resonates with you so much.
Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do that with Lessons in Chemistry because its one of those rare unicorns that appear every once in a while: a book with a story worth telling that also happens to be incredibly well-written.
There are so many things I want to say about this book, so many threads to pull, that I hardly know where to start. I think I should just start with the main character: Elizabeth Zott.
Elizabeth strives first and foremost to be herself, in all things. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a character who is so uncompromising in her principles and beliefs (sometimes to the point of lunacy, depending on who you ask). She will make her own way in the world and refuses to use her relationships with others to get ahead. She will raise her kid her own way, do sports in her own way, and dammit, she will cook in her own way – using chemistry apparatus and processes should she so desire if only because it brings her the most joy and pleasure to do it that way.
I think it’s the hardest thing to do, to accept who you are and not be afraid to show it to the world. The world can be such a harsh and judgmental place. Who amongst us can say that we are immune to other people’s opinions about us? We all want to be liked and accepted and to be considered normal, so we tend to hide away little pieces of who we are, and adopt other people’s beliefs and wants as our own, in order to fit in.
We don’t even see the danger of doing that until it’s too late and we’ve lost all sense of who we are and we wake up one morning and we realise we don’t even know how we really want our breakfast eggs to be cooked (thank you Julia Roberts for the analogy, I’ve always preferred sunny-side up).
Elizabeth doesn’t do that, or at least she doesn’t do it to the extent of what I would do when faced with the pressures of society. The further I travel down this unconventional path that I find myself in – single, reasonably attractive, reasonably intelligent, childless, career-driven, alone but not lonely, finding fulfilment outside of romantic relationships – the more I need heroes like her to tell me that it doesn’t matter so much what the world thinks of me as long as I can still look at the mirror and like what I see.
After all, Erasmus once said: it is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is.
I don’t want this to be post to get too political because my book reviews are really all about me (if anyone has a problem with that, its my blog, so whatever). I don’t really consider myself a feminist mostly because I think the word has become overly used and abused by the woke generation that I fear it has lost its meaning, but also because calling myself one makes me feel like a fraud. I don’t think I can live up to those ideals, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on issues such as equality and fair wages.
I will say, however, that I am grateful to, and will support in my own way, all the women who have fought the battles that needed to be fought so that I can live in a world where I can be whoever I want to be. Even if it’s just by reading, reviewing and highlighting important messages in books like Lessons in Chemistry.
These women have paved the way, so that its now normal that I work in a speciality that used to be male-dominated, and I am able to make opinions and decisions within that speciality that matter and make a difference.
I’m grateful that because of those women I have a voice that’s heard (perhaps too much and too loudly at times) on a regular basis, and that I can be sure that a male colleague on the same Agenda for Change pay scale as I do receives the same amount of wages, and that this isn’t determined by the fact that he has a penis and I have ovaries.
And that’s all I will have to say about that. Back to the book review.
Its tempting to think of this book as a rom-com. It started out as one, and maybe that’s why even as I neared the end I was still hoping for a love story, for Elizabeth to have her happy ending.
Now, how bloody hypocritical and reductive is that sentence?
I, of all people, should know better. I should know more than anyone that your life and happiness isn’t defined by the relationships you have with other people. Haven’t I struggled and spoke out against people who choose to diminish (even if unintentional) what I have done with my life purely because I remain unmarried at 34?
Elizabeth did have her love story. She had a love story with the women whose lives she touched through what other people (men, mostly) thought was just another cooking show. She inspired them to learn, and showed them that they can and should expect more of themselves, and that includes learning chemistry if they want it.
It was a love story with the men and women she formed genuine friendships with, who eventually became part of her unconventional family.
It was a love story with a dog named six-thirty and a little girl named Mad, who are both too intelligent for their own good.
And it was a love story with herself, that starred herself and the dreams that she never gave up on, no matter how hard things got at some point.
In the end, just like Nigella Lawson said in the blurb, I am totally devastated to have finished this. It was such a fun book to read, importing just the right amount of gravitas when it comes to things that matter while still being able to have a laugh and not take itself too seriously.
There should be more books like this, written by women, for women, celebrating women. It’s a privilege to have read it, just like it’s a privilege to be a woman fighting to prove that I have a place in this world.
Men, set the table, the women far too busy putting our own stamp on the world to bother with dinner. Lol
I’ve read enough books to know that literary tastes change over time and sometimes a book you hate can become a book you love depending on your current life circumstances.
I bought Under The Whispering Door by TJ Klune first of all because I was attracted to the spray-painted edges and the beautiful jacket of the Waterstones hardcover edition. I was also on somewhat of an LGBTQ reading streak after finishing the sequel to Aristotle and Dante Explore the Secrets of The Universe.
I like TJ Klune just fine. I think his characters are quirky and cute, if a bit too saccharine for my tastes. However, I do think his books are overly long and suffer from pacing issues.
The premise of this book is interesting enough: a man dies and is taken by the Grim Reaper to some kind of coffee shop called Charon’s Crossing (lol) where a ferryman named Hugo is waiting to guide him to the afterlife.
The middle meandered a bit, and this was where I started to slowly lose interest. And that’s saying a lot, as I was under mandatory hotel quarantine whilst reading this book and literally had nothing else to do apart from sleep, eat, and worry about an upcoming job interview.
I personally thought the story went in a completely different direction from what I was expecting based on the premise, so I put it away and thought, hmph, maybe this needs to go on the DNF pile because life is too short to waste it reading a book you don’t like.
Then my grandmother took a turn for the worse.
My family and I then entered a purgatory of waiting where, especially for those of us who were in the health care business, we knew that all we were doing was delaying the inevitable.
Acute kidney injury and pneumonia at her age, especially with the abysmal health care services in the most rural areas of this country, is not something that patients can easily come back from. I knew her life was measured in weeks, if not days, and on top of everything that already happened this year it all got a little bit too much.
So I picked this book up again, and my situation being what it was, it took on a completely different meaning. I somehow just got what TJ was trying to do with it. Like me, he was processing his grief in the only way he knew how, in the medium that was available to him.
The book, to me, is wish fulfillment at its best. Death is the big unknown. One of life’s unsanswerable questions. Those who are in the position to tell us what happens after we die are the same ones who are unable to do so because you know, they’re dead.
So TJ Klune, like so many before him, attempts to paint a picture of what he thinks it might be like for those who have left us.
But this book is so much more than that. In writing about death, TJ Klune somehow managed to write a book celebrating life. I think that’s what really struck me about this book. Its meant to bring some measure of comfort to those left behind, but its also an urge, a plea to the living to make the best of the time they have left to think about what’s really important.
So much about life and death is a mystery. I think there are parts of it that we’re not meant to understand, and that’s where faith comes in I guess. My faith isn’t as strong as it was. I’m not the type who believes in mysticism and signs, not like I used to anyway. The older we get, the harder it is to believe in the intangible, in the things that are can’t be explained by reason or supported by facts.
But consider this: For the whole of last week my cousin had been doing all he can to keep my grandmother comfortable. She had days and nights where she couldn’t breath and we were nebulising her so frequently we feared her heart would give out.
There was one evening where I asked my cousin to gather everyone together and started a group Messenger call because a part of me really thought that was it. When she made it through that night, my only remaining prayer was that she lived long enough to allow mum to say her goodbyes. That might be selfish, and it might mean prolonging grandma’s suffering, but I’d like to think it was what she would have wanted too.
My mum and my sister finally arrived at my grandmother’s bedside Saturday evening. She was barely lucid, she sort of vaguely recognised them and followed them around with her eyes, but she wasn’t responsive enough at that point to even respond to a ‘hello’. Arlene, my sister, said goodbye and promised she would be back to see her at 8am the following day with mama.
My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at 5am the next day. She held on long enough so my mother was able to say goodbye, long enough to answer my prayers.
When my cousin rang me about her death, I reached for Under The Whispering Door, and found immeasurable comfort in the touching story of Wallace, Hugo, Nelson, Mei and Apollo the Dog. I think I’m a different person now to the person I was when I first started reading this. I know a little bit more and I know a little bit less about life and death than I did now.
Here are some of the things I’m certain of though. For a long time, I’ve been living a life so shallow that I’ve cared more about material things and my self-image than the relationships I have with other people. It’s funny how little those things matter when shit really hits the fan. The other thing I do know is that life really is short. At this point, some of us have more years behind us than we do ahead of us.
The last thing I know is that it really doesn’t matter that we don’t know what comes after the end. The idea is to believe that its going to be amazing, and to die with that belief is to die peacefully. There is a version of events where we are all reunited with those we’ve lost, sipping tea and playing mahjong somewhere up in heaven. This is the version that I will choose to believe.
I’ve said this a lot, I’ve thought this a lot, and many thanks to TJ Klune for this beautiful book and for this wonderful message that I am able to give my grandmother, in spirit, as I was unable to do in person:
Goodbye Nanay, I hope you woke up somewhere beautiful.
The Boss needs no introduction. Even those of us who were mere blimps in our parents’ minds (I doubt I was even a concept in mine) when he released his biggest hits would have heard his songs, or some iteration of it, at least once: Blinded By the Light, Glory Days, Born in the USA, perhaps even a teeny tiny song called Dancing in The Dark whose music video featured a then-unknown young actress who would someday grow up to be Monica Geller.
I personally have very fond memories of Bruce and his music. Both are inescapably linked with my memories of growing up. I can still recall sneaking my uncle’s limited edition 2-disc Bruce Springsteen and the E-street Band Greatest Hits CD out of the living room cupboard late at night so I can listen to Thunder Road on repeat as I go to sleep, and then waking up at dawn so I can sneak it back in before he’s had the chance to notice it was gone.
In hindsight, I honestly don’t know why I didn’t just ask to borrow it but there you go.
For some reason, Bruce seemed to have experienced some kind of renaissance during the pandemic. He was everywhere during the first, second, and (for those of us in the UK) third lockdown; at least, it felt that way to me.
He was in all my running playlists because you simply can’t finish a run without playing (wait for it) Born to Run. His Broadway show was on Netflix, he had a weekly Spotify podcast with Barack Obama, he was showing young ‘uns like Jack Antonoff and Brandon Flowers how its done in songs like Chinatown and ADustland Fairytale, and leaving them in the dust even at the ripe old age 70.
So ubiquitous was his presence that I felt compelled to buy a copy of his memoir, aptly titled Born to Run, from Blackwell’s in Oxfordshire of all places, because Waterstones and Amazon were no longer selling the hardbound edition. And after the slow start of the first few chapters, where it felt like he was still struggling to find his voice, I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Boss can really write, and that I actually gave a damn about what he had to say.
I found that although our lives are about as different as night and day, Bruce Springsteen’s story is universal, and in reading his memoir, I felt seen, heard, and understood.
Bruce in his younger years was the consummate perfectionist, who lived with all the voices in his head telling him he wasn’t good enough. Like me, he needed his people. This is why he brought the guys of the E-street band with him all the way up to the stratospheric heights of success he achieved, because he knew the experiences would be meaningless if you don’t have anyone to share it with.
Bruce had his demons. He was very forthright with his mental health struggles and his turbulent relationship with his father, but only to an extent. Despite his public persona, and despite the glimpses of his true self he allows us to see through his music, he is an intensely private man. He describes the reasons for this perfectly when he said:
Trust is a fragile thing. It requires allowing others to see as much of ourselves as we have the courage to reveal.
I like how he remained true to himself, and honest about who he is, faults and all. Most people give in to the temptation to edit their life story and make themselves look good. He went almost the opposite way. There was a sense of self-deprecation underlying everything that he wrote which makes the book immensely readable.
Bruce is the anti-thesis to the everyday working man who holds a 9-to-5 job, secure in the knowledge of where his next pay check is coming from even if said pay check is meagre as hell after taxes, pension, and additional deductions because payroll totally screwed up in calculating your National Insurance contributions so you’re now having to pay back that salary increase you thought you had earned. (Sorry, I didn’t realise I was still bitter about that).
Bruce’s story is everything that mine isn’t: taking risks, taking chances, holding on to your dream even when you were down to your last dollar, virtually homeless and living off the goodwill of your friends. I could not live like that. I sometimes ask myself why I never pursued a career in the entertainment industry, and the answer, apart from my obvious lack of acting skills or musical talent, is that I do not have the constitution to live under the threat of poverty as I wait for my dreams to come true.
Sometimes I wish I was the kind of person who could choose the road less travelled, instead of the one who makes the safe choices every time the road diverges. Because even though examples are few and far in between, if you want it bad enough and you work hard enough, you can pull out and win. Thunder Road is one of my favourite songs in the world because it is a love letter to possibilities, to those who have beaten the odds and won.
Most of us will live out our lives living perfectly normal existences, and that’s okay. There is joy to be found in the ordinary. I actually think the ordinary is underrated, and in his later years Bruce Springsteen himself will reflect on the value of simple things, of family, and of love.
But I think we need the Bruce Springsteens and the Thunder Roads of the world because of what they represent: POSSIBILITIES.
More than anything in my life right now, this is the one thing that gets me out of bed and gets me all excited. The idea of possibilities. The wish, the dream, and the hope that something extraordinary could be waiting around the corner.
Whenever I start to feel like the best years of my life are behind me, I think of Bruce, I think of Thunder Road, and I think of possibilities.
Then I smile, knowing that there’s always going to be some magic left in the night.
Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns and flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Two words that independent of each other don’t amount to much but when combined, form one of the most powerful phrases in the English language.
As I grow older, and with lockdown causing me to have A LOT of time in my hands, I often pause and wonder about what could have been if I had made different choices, if I had chosen to go left instead of right, if I had walked instead of taken the tube on one of the days when I felt lazy, or if I had invested in Twitter when it was just another start-up.
What if I had never met this person, or never fallen in love, or if I’d had the balls to tell the guy I fancied I had feelings for him?
What if COVID never happened? I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about the opportunities not taken, the road no one got to travel, and the lost acquaintances, friendships and relationships that never had the chance to form because of the year we all spent apart instead of together.
The Kingdoms is a book that feels like one long episode of What if. Emphasis on long, because this is not a book for the fainthearted, clocking in at just under 500 pages. However, let me just put it out there that I couldn’t care less what her critics say, I have a soft spot for Natasha Pulley’s writing. Do some of the scenes meander? Are there times when you feel like nothing’s really happening? Is too much importance given to making tea and just sitting side by side with the person you love? Yes, yes, and bloody hell YES.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You see, even in a plot as ambitious, twisty and thought-provoking as the one we have here (imagine a world where England had lost the Battle of Trafalgar and Napoleon had been made emperor), what Natasha achieves time and time again in all of her novels is a sense of intimacy. The kind that lives in the silence of words that need not be said, that kind that finds happiness in simply being near a person, that loves without conditions, understands without judgment, gives with no expectations and trusts, with no reason or proof that the trust is earned or deserved.
Her characters are always well developed. I can’t explain it, but because of the patient way she introduces them to readers, and the way she lets everything unfold without rushing us, allowing us to discover what we each love in the Joe Tournier’s, Missouri Kite’s and (still my favourite) Keita Mori’s of the world, I always end up feeling like I really know these people, and I end up falling in love with each of them, every single time.
I feel obligated to just drop a few lines that would actually be considered a proper book review rather than just me gushing about how great this book is. The premise is reminiscent of The Man in the High Castle, and I spent about a week watching the series just because I was inspired to give it another go after reading this book. I found it just as boring as the first time I bothered to watch the first episode. Great premise, terrible execution.
The Kingdoms, in contrast, was so well-crafted and well-plotted, and all the elements just fit. It was atmospheric, like all of Natasha’s works are. I could almost feel the chill in my bones, the salt air and the breeze coming from the ocean. I could smell the gunpowder from enemy fires and feel the smoke in my throat. And do not get me started on the feels. Everything was just so painfully beautiful, sometimes I had to stop reading to keep myself from getting overwhelmed.
If the superlatives weren’t enough to clue you in, then let me say explicitly that I really really loved this book. There is a different sort of happiness that can be derived from the simple things, and at the core of this fantastical book is a simple story of love being love, and being strong enough to withstand the literal test of time. Despite being Katsu-less (bloody hell, I loved that octopus), The Kingdoms is still a masterpiece, and one that I will quite happily (and probably) re-read over and over again.
I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to Hamlet, arguably one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language.
I was about 11 or so when I heard that John F. Kennedy Jr., who back then was the closest thing America had to a prince, had died in a plane crash. CNN and BBC news kept flashing the image of him that had indelibly imprinted itself in the public consciousness: that of a little boy saluting his father’s coffin during the procession to its final resting place. One newspaper had stamped these words, along with his picture, on the front page:
“Goodnight sweet prince, and may flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
I remember sobbing my heart out though I hardly knew the guy. Even when I was younger, I always considered a life suddenly cut short, especially when it was unexpected, to be the biggest tragedy in the world. I looked up those lines and found out they were from a play by William Shakespeare called Hamlet, and I proceeded to hunt up a copy of the play so I could read what it was all about. I was prepared to be amazed and blown away.
My actual reaction was somewhat less than enthusiastic.
To be fair, I was 11 and not nearly mature enough to appreciate the plot, and of course, the various subtexts that made the play so culturally significant and the most widely discussed among all the Bard’s plays. I only knew that it was long and confusing and I would rather have been reading Romeo and Juliet instead if I’m being honest. Needless to say, this was the first and last time I would ever read the story of the Prince of Denmark.
After reading Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant book, I think I might just crack open a copy of the play again and see whether time and maturity would give me a different perspective. Certainly the idea that Shakespeare had named the Prince of Denmark after his deceased son, and had written it both to honour him and as a way to process his grief, gives it this air of sentimentality, so much that I expect I may never look at it the same way again.
I tend to be really suspicious of any book that wins awards, be it Man Booker Prize or Waterstones’ Book of the Year or whatever. I often find that the quality of book doesn’t quite live up to the hype, at least not in the sense that I actually enjoy reading it. Like, for example, (and I’m probably going to be roasted on the internet for this) I think Hillary Mantel’s Wolfhall series is the biggest pile of (pretentious) drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading.
Hamnet, though, deserves all the accolade it’s received and more.
The plot itself is really very simple. In fact, the plot is something that a simple Wikipedia search would turn up so this isn’t really a spoiler: Hamnet does not survive this book (it says so on the very first page). He dies at eleven; and while there’s very little known about the actual cause of death, Maggie O’Farrell suggests that he died as a result of the bubonic plague that was rampant around England at the time.
It’s hard not to draw parallels at this point to the current coronavirus pandemic. I think this book had a much bigger impact on me than it would have if these had been ordinary times. I just couldn’t help but compare the family’s efforts to care for the children to that of my NHS colleagues working round the clock to give extremely unwell patients a fighting chance to return home to their families. I couldn’t help but think of reports of entire families intubated in the ITU, or young men and women whom the public once thought invincible succumbing to this deadly virus.
It’s just hard, period. If I forget to say it later, I’d quite like to thank Maggie O’Farrell for writing this book and publishing it when she did. I don’t think she realised when she started how relevant it would be to the times we now live in. And speaking for myself, I thought her writing showed she really understood what it was like to see someone go through all that suffering, knowing you were helpless to stop it, that nothing you could do could stop the virus from taking a life.
This alone would have made the book a 5-star read anyway, but then there were all the other elements that made it even better.
It is a testament to how well this book was written that us already knowing how it would end doesn’t take anything away from the build-up of tension and suspense, as the timeline shifts between the present, where the family was trying to do all they can to save the children, and the past, where we get to know more of Agnes Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s mysterious wife.
In telling the story of Agnes, the author was able to inject hints of the magical and supernatural into the book: Agnes was rumoured to be some kind of witch, although I highly doubt this is true. More like these rumours were a product of ignorant minds who simply cannot fathom another explanation for an intelligent woman, apart from this being a result of a pact made with the devil. EYE. ROLL.
I liked Agnes. I liked how modern a character she is, how she took matters into her own hands, how she was strong enough to love, let go, survive loss, forgive, and love again. Taking the time to tell her story was a clever way of keeping readers waiting and at the same time ensured that when the story reached its inevitable conclusion, we’d already formed such a connection with the characters that we wept and mourned with them, Agnes most especially.
I liked that William Shakespeare himself was never once mentioned by name in this book. Of course his legacy casts a large shadow. One never quite forgets that when the author referred to the Latin Tutor, the son, the husband, or the father, that she was actually referring to England’s (and maybe the world’s) greatest playwright. But I thought Maggie O’Farrell treated him with the care and sensitivity that the story deserved, making him just another part of the tapestry being woven.
And that tapestry had Hamnet, the boy on the cusp of manhood, at its centre. This was evident in how she opened the book: him running towards an empty house desperate to find his mother so she could tell him everything was going to be alright, knowing all the while that nothing may ever be alright again. The lack of other characters in that one scene was like the moment in a play when the spotlight shines on the main actor, alone on the stage, and for that one instant we know that there is nothing else more important than this character, that he will touch the lives of those around him for better or for worse.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s death. When they died last year, the only thing people talked about more than Kobe’s legacy was the insane waste of Gigi dying so young, how she would have done so much good for basketball and for the world if her life hadn’t been so brutally cut short.
They quoted Hamlet again. May flight of angels sing thee to they rest.
It’s like the play, and now this book, has come to represent a life uninterrupted, the vacuum left by those who are no longer with us, and the empty space that those leave behind fill with what might-have-been’s.
This book ends with the creation of the play, as we knew it would, but how it was actually portrayed was one of the most heartbreaking manifestations of grief and loss that I’ve ever read in a book. Needless to say, I was sobbing my heart out. This isn’t the cheeriest of books, and I often had to take a break to read romance novels in between just to be able to get through it, but damned if this isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read in a long long time, and I will remember it always.
I’ve read so many books that sometimes they all just blur together in my mind. The plots all start looking the same, and you begin to be hyper-vigilant about details that may seem insignificant but actually have a bigger meaning later on in the book. You become immune to plot twists and big reveals.
In fact, its almost like you’re conditioned to expect that things are not what they seem, that the innocent bystander is actually the long-lost-cousin who has come to murder the hero who then turns out to be the real villain.
Because that’s the secret isn’t it? There’s a formula you follow if you want to write the perfect page-turner, and an essential component to that formula is to give readers something that will take them by surprise, something that will make them go, wow, I totally did not see that coming.
I pride myself on being really good at guessing plot twists and big reveals. I’m usually able to see them coming from a mile away. A lot of them are so obvious they’re almost insulting. The worst ones are those that don’t even make sense to the story, and have clearly only been added just for the shock factor.
But just like a lot of things in life, the best plot twists are the ones that you never see coming, the ones that make you want to reread the book, and reread it again, and then once more just for good measure, because each time you do it just gives you a different perspective.
It adds nuance and depth to a story you thought you already knew backwards and forwards. It’s like finding a new flavour in every bite of a perfectly made dessert, or a hidden corner in a city you’ve lived in for nearly a decade, or finding a reason to fall in love with a partner over and over again.
The best books are like The Betrayals by Bridget Collins. Stories that stay with you long before you turn the last page. Characters that are diverse and flawed and all the more interesting because of it. And even though a part of me finds the concept of the grand jeux and Montverre just a tiny bit pretentious, a bigger part of me thinks, upon careful reflection, that maybe I’m meant to feel that way.
Maybe the author wants me to feel just a little bit uncomfortable when I read about sad, old, white men who refuse to get with the times and acknowledge that there is a world beyond their privileged existence.
Ultimately though, underneath the covert political messages and obvious calls for the banishment of longstanding biases, prejudices and archaic institutions that exclude people on the basis of gender and religion, The Betrayals is a love story at its purest form, an ode to the basic human need (and human right!) to be truly seen and understood as an equal, and to be loved for no other reason than because you are who you are. Unconditionally. Beyond all rhyme and reason.
Last night I found myself narrating the plot of this book to my sister, who has very little patience in reading books these days. Whenever I attempt to tell her about something I’m reading, Arlene usually loses interest after about 5 minutes. But with this one, she actually listened to me in a way that I’m almost tempted to describe as enraptured. I made it all the way up to the big reveal, which, okay, she totally guessed, but only because I laid out all the clues for her. I refuse to accept that she’s just more intelligent and insightful than I am.
They say your sophomore outing is usually more terrifying than the first because you live in fear of falling short of everyone’s expectations, especially if the first book was a success. But I think this was a great follow-up to The Binding, a wonderful surprise, a breath of fresh air in the middle of all the humdrum works I’ve been reading lately.
And in answer to the title question…
Have all the books been written?
Absolutely not. There’s always room for surprises and originality. And this is what makes reading such a pleasurable experience.
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.
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:
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).
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, ANDcheck.
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.