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.
One fine day towards the end of lockdown I decided to do something I haven’t done in the three months that we’ve all spent at home wondering whether some stupid little virus was going to kill us and everyone we love: I stepped on a weighing scale.
People respond to stress differently. I happen to do it with a burger in one hand and a red velvet cupcake on the other. I have been told for years that I needed to find a new way of coping with stress, one that does not involve consuming massive amounts of calories, but it is as ingrained in me as the urge to pray like a good little Catholic whenever I feel afraid. Whatever logic I come up with doesn’t compare to something I’ve internalised from the moment I understood what stress meant.
Anyway, seeing as how nothing was more stressful than a global pandemic, it shouldn’t have surprised me to see the numbers on the scale, flashing like great big neon signs telling me I now weighed more than I’ve ever weighed since I lost all my college weight.
I went into a spiral.
I spent nearly 100£ at Marks and Spencer buying”healthy” food and vowing to only eat greens and fish from now on (this lasted about a day, and the expired cucumber and kale eventually made our fridge smell like something had died in it). I downloaded the couch to 5k app and bought a new series 5 Apple Watch to give myself further motivation to run every morning. I reinvigorated my complicated relationship with MyFatness Pal and told myself I would stick with the limit that the app has set to presumably give me a caloric deficit which will then enable me to lose weight.
This is a cycle I repeat at least once every three months for the past two decades of my life. I have been on a diet since I was 10. I was taught from a young age that fat is something to avoid at all costs. Fat is a word that boys in my class would use to tease girls who do not conform to the accepted standards of Filipino society, where the default setting is skinny. This is a society that considers a size 12 fat, a society where it is acceptable to make tsunami jokes when someone who looks like me even thinks about wearing a bikini in public.
I could write a whole book about this and someday I probably will. But for this blog post I refuse to waste another paragraph dwelling on all the slurs and bullying I’ve received AND GIVEN to people who are fat (in fact, I just realised I’ve already written a post about this). I will instead talk about how reading Sofie Hagen’s book made me feel.
First, it made me check my own privilege. I may consider myself fat but I can still buy clothes in an ordinary store, run, climb several flights of stairs without feeling like I’m going to die (most of the time anyway), and fit into regular airplane seats. Before I read this book, I didn’t realise this was a genuine problem for other people, that for them going on an airplane is akin to their worst nightmare, a danger-filled safari where they have to pay for two seats just to have leg room, because if they don’t, they have to spend the next 12 hours or so in physical torment, trapped in something that is literally a cramped metal box, all while feeling like they have to apologise to their seat mates for being who and what they are.
I don’t have that experience. Knowing that some people do makes me feel ashamed of ever moaning about how my life is over because I’ve gained a kilo. I used to hate that sentence. Check your privilege, I mean. I used to think it was incredibly judgmental and holier-than-thou. As if I have no right to complain about how I feel shitty because other people feel shittier. But it’s true. You don’t realise how good you have it until you gain some perspective about how it could be worse.
Second, by the time I got to the end of this book I had unfollowed everyone on my social media feeds who is or has ever been a Victoria’s Secret model. I remember this sinking feeling in my stomach every time the annual VS Fashion Show would come around. It sent every millennial I know into a tailspin of delight and frenzy and for weeks my feeds would be filled with photos of Candice and Kendall and Behati and Alessandra and Adriana. People who are so abnormally fit and beautiful they make you feel worthless because you don’t have a thigh gap. I consider myself to have a healthy-ish self-esteem but now for the first time I can admit that I have never been able to sit through a VS Fashion Show without feeling the need to run to the nearest gym and stay on that treadmill until I achieve this mythical thigh gap.
This impossible standard of beauty…where the hell did it come from?
How many people I know actually look like that in real life? Why are they considered something to which all woman should aspire to? Do I really want to date men who will think less of me for not looking like every man’s wet dream? I have this thing I tell myself, that I’m happy with the way I am because I’ve long ago accepted the fact that I will never be beautiful but will have to settle for “cute” instead. I regarded my intelligence and sense of humour and all my other achievements as compensation for the fact that my looks are fairly average and ordinary.
Bloody hell, just reading that sentence makes me want to shake myself and scream at myself until I start to see sense.
I’m intelligent but I’m fat. I’m funny but my looks are average. I have a good job but men don’t immediately think ‘hot’ when they first see me. These are three of the stupidest sentences I have ever written in my life.
I feel obligated to say that I don’t hate people who fall within the accepted standards of beauty. Its no one’s fault that they look the way they do. In fact, please find below two of. the most accurate and reaffirming statements I have ever read in my life:
Beauty is a tricky one – because you can’t blame someone for being beautiful , but you can blame the culture that created the idea of ideal beauty.
Beauty is so subjective. It is laughable that we have somehow been tricked into thinking we should all find the same thing beautiful.
I think its healthier for me, now when my mental health feels a little fragile after the experience of the pandemic and having to face all my worst fears and insecurities during lockdown, to not look at yet another photo of Kendall Jenner in a bikini so tiny she might as well not be wearing anything at all. I wish full-figured bodies were better represented in mainstream media and social media (maybe they are and I’m just not looking hard enough because my head is still obsessed with the beauty ideal), I wish I lived in a world where people don’t think fat means unlovable and unF**able (sorry, have to censor that, my conservative family reads this blog lol). I wish we had, as Sofie says, a fat Disney princess.
I have to write a line here about exercise and fitness. I’m writing a separate blog about this but just within the context of this post, I feel the need to point out that exercising doesn’t mean you subscribe to the notion that fat is ugly, as long as you exercise to achieve a goal, because it makes you feel good about yourself in that moment, because of the endorphins and the rush you get after completing a run for example…and not because you are perpetually running after a vision of a thinner, more desirable you.
Thirdly, this book tells me that the road to accepting and loving your body is not a straight path but one with curves, where you might find yourself doubling back to that point where you hate the person you see in the mirror. The trick is to always bounce back from it, to rise above every fat phobia and misogyny and every capitalist message telling you that you are not good enough because of how you look. We ned to challenge every norm and cut off things and people that make us feel that way.
This book made me realise that I should and could be doing something to change the narrative for people who look like me and for fat people whose experiences I will never come close to understanding (again, check your privilege), and it starts with something as simple as not seeing the word fat as a negative. It is simply a description of a type of body structure. Its people who add all sorts of negative connotation to it. People say fat like its a bad thing, and it’s not. At least, it shouldn’t be.
There are other things I should be doing too. Like maybe stop making weight such an issue. And to have entire conversations with my girlfriends that do not centre on our diets and exercise regime. And maybe standing up for those who aren’t able to walk into a restaurant without worrying that they’ll break one of the chairs made by a world that tries to exclude, marginalise and erase them.
Okay, FULL DISCLOSURE TIME:
I’ve just read what I’ve written and it all sounds so good and positive and yet, I know that the process of applying it in my own life is far more complicated. Even as I type this I am looking at the clock and counting down the hours until I can eat because I am currently doing intermittent fasting. I am still in a relationship with MyFatness Pal and I still zoom in on my stomach in photos before I post them to make sure I don’t see a bulge.
I am not fooling myself into thinking I will change overnight or if I could even change at all. So what was the point of posting this blog? Am I just one big giant fraud? When it comest to my weight, I am never certain. I always feel like I’m only paying lip service, because I have spent my whole life equating my value with how far down the numbers on the weighing scale goes.
I suppose I am writing this stream of consciousness to first of all, encourage everyone to read Happy Fat. But mostly I am recording these thoughts here for posterity, like I want to capture this moment in time where I am fully lucid and cognizant that everything I think I know about being fat and being beautiful is a pile of rubbish.
So that the next time I spiral, or if there’s even one person out there who feel like they’ve been helped just by reading this post and they find themselves spiralling, we will have something to go back to. Maybe someone will read it and think twice the next time they find themselves thinking negative things about a fat person who is simply trying to eat their carrot cake in peace.
P.S. Sorry Sofie, if you ever read this, its not much of a review at all. But I love you. thank you for this wonderful gift of a book you’ve given to the world.
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?
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.
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.
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.