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.
Sometimes late at night (and with frighteningly increasing regularity this year) I would lie awake and tick off a mental checklist of the things I didn’t get to do today. Like, I’d promise myself I would do all my laundry, but then I had to work an extra hour here and an extra hour there just to finish off a project, so I’d leave laundry for another day.
Sometimes I’d run through a list of things I didn’t get to do for the week. I’d promise myself I’d go for a run, or start an exercise routine, but then the weather just wouldn’t cooperate, and I’d find myself working an extra shift or two to pay off some of my more pressing credit card bills, and before I know it another week has gone by without me doing any of the things I’d promised myself I’d do, so I make another promise to try again next week.
And then there’s the plans that I made for this year. I was going to go skydiving with my friends, travel with my parents, go on more hikes, be more adventurous, write a book, meet new people, maybe start dating again…and then coronavirus happened and those plans had to be put on hold. And with all the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic, there’s really no telling when, if ever, life will regain some semblance of normalcy.
I guess my point is that I have always been morbidly obsessed with how much time I have to spend, and not just in the sense of the minutiae of daily living but on a much grander scale. Some days I feel like I’ve been in my 30s forever, and some days I feel like I’m being propelled at breakneck speed towards the end of days and I’m not ready for the end to come just yet.
I’m not ready because I feel like I have only just begun to live. There are so many things I want to do, so much I want to experience, and one of my biggest fears is that I will never have enough time to do all of them, that my life is going to be a column of unticked boxes, full of unfinished business.
Wow, that was morbid.
I guess I’m thinking about all of this now because The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is a book that compels you to reflect on the passage of time and what it means to really live, not just the eking out of existence that passes for living these days. This is the kind of book that reminds us to not spend too much of our time worrying about the inconsequential things, because it might cause us to miss out on the things that really matter.
The trick, really, is being able to separate which one is which.
Mostly this book will just make you think about life, how weird and wonderful it is, what gift it is to be alive, how we waste so much time treating it like an afterthought, consuming it like a Big Mac you eat on the go rather than savouring it like four-course meal its meant to be.
It will make you think about how sometimes life gets a little too much, how it all becomes a bit loud sometimes, how – for some people, life feels like a storm that will never end, and you just want it all to end.
But you shouldn’t.
Because as hard as it gets sometimes, the storm always passes. And you get the moments when life feels like that rare, perfect first date that you never want to end. You make it stretch, you go for one more drink, dance one last dance, walk all the way to the Tube station, have another good night kiss, decide to take a train heading in the opposite direction to where you live just so you could have more time with that person. If you’re lucky, that’s what life should feel like.
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is a tribute to the moments you wish would never end.
This really is a beautiful book. Objectively, it perhaps could have done with a bit more trimming. Maybe it was a bit predictable. There were times when I felt like I’d read it all before. But those last hundred pages packed so much of an emotional punch that objectivity just went flying through the window. And V.E. Schwab writes so beautifully. She has a way of writing chapters that make you feel like you are being cocooned by the warmth of her prose.
The characters may have started out bland and one-dimensional, but you get to the end and you realise how complex and layered they really are, and in a strangely fitting way, I ended the book feeling like I never really understood them at all. The ending was ambiguous in the most beautiful of ways. To paraphrase a line from the book, the ending felt more like ellipses than an actual period. The story isn’t finished, even if it would now be left to the reader to imagine how each character’s fate would turn out.
I highly recommend this book. 4 out of 5 stars.
Addendum: Just to say, I know its funny that in a book that is probably more about being seen, and leaving your mark, and being remembered, I spent an entire blog post talking about life and the passage of time, put such is the magic of reading fiction. It will resonate with readers in different ways and for different reasons. I guess the only important thing is that it resonates with readers at all.
I had my first kiss when I was twenty seven with a guy I’d met while speed dating. I grew up with all kinds of ideas about how my first kiss was going to go. Hopeless romantic that I was (and still am, probably) I imagined either a moonlit walk on the beach or a romantic candlelight dinner with a full orchestra playing Your Song by Elton John. Fireworks were essential, both literally and figuratively.
What I didn’t expect was dinner at a sushi restaurant (bad idea) and being kissed in the the middle of Trafalgar Square (okay, not a bad location) by someone I was only dating because I felt like I HAD to. At that point, everyone I knew was pairing up, getting married, having kids – ticking all those boxes that we had been brainwashed since birth to believe were the ONLY things that gave life meaning.
At that point, I felt like the odd one, the weirdo who was holding out for something that didn’t exist. Maybe saving your first kiss for someone special was a myth that only existed in movies. As one of my friends put it, what was more important was experience. And apparently, I need lots and lots of those.
Needless to say, my first kiss was a flop, I never saw the guy again because he wanted to get serious after only the second date and I knew I didn’t like him that way. He was just a box I needed to tick, and I think I know now that every dating experience I’ve ever had were like that. I felt like I HAD to date, I HAD to make the effort, otherwise I was going to spend my entire life alone, the lonely spinster perpetually thinking about what might have been, the old lady who spends winters by the fireplace knitting, surrounded by cats – alone, lonely, LOVELESS.
Bollocks to that.
It took me quite a long time (and a lot of bad dating experiences) to accept that alone didn’t have to mean lonely. That relationships were not the be all and end all of the universe. That if people judge me for not being in a relationship, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with me, it meant there was something wrong with them. In fact, there is something wrong with a world that measures your value only by your ability to be with another person.
There are all kinds of love apart from the intensely passionate and romantic pairings we see in the movies or read about in books. There’s love for your family, a love for your friends, and a love for yourself.
I think about, for example, the kind of relationship I have with my sister. Growing up, she was this pesky, annoying, bothersome person who taped over my Spice World cassette tape (I wanted to murder her for that, but my mum wouldn’t let me) and read my diaries. Now she’s one of my best friends, one of the few people who call me on my bullshit and never let me think too highly of myself, who will feed me when I’m hungry and make me tea when I’m sick, who will send me recommendations from the British Heart Council every time my hypochondriac brain acts up and I send her a text saying ‘I think I’m having a heart attack’.
You can’t tell me that that kind of love, that that kind of relationship, is somehow less because its not romantic.
As I get older, I’ve learned to make peace with who I am: I’m never going to be conventionally attractive but I love the way I look most of the time. I like to work. Other people will think that’s sad but they do them and I do me. I’d rather read and write than climb walls and fly off aeroplanes. I’m never going to be the most fun person at a party but I’m still fairly okay at making conversation with people. I’ve fallen in love (or thought I did) a few times. Only one or two have been real, to be honest. But throughout all that, my biggest relationship has always been with myself.
And just like any relationship, it has its ups and downs and days when I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, but I find a way to forgive myself and to promise to do better, to be better, because I want to go to bed at night assured that I liked the person I was today. You can’t tell me that that is somehow less important just because its not really a relationship in the conventional sense.
I have rambled on as usual. Several paragraphs in and I haven’t even talked about the book yet…but everything I just said is essentially what Loveless by Alice Osman is about: the idea that there are all kinds of love, that sexuality is a broad spectrum of things from straight to asexual and aromantic, that no one gets to define what gives your life meaning apart from YOU. The book is messy, cringy, annoying, intense, funny, ridiculous heartwarming and ultimately, a real JOY to read.
I wanted to give up on it halfway through because I thought, meh, I wouldn’t be able to relate to this. I was just about to give it a DNF rating on Goodreads but I have a real aversion to not finishing a book, it just feels wrong to me. So I carried on, and I’m so so glad I did. Because despite my experiences and my sexuality being totally different from Georgia’s, the main protagonist, the whole point of the book is that love may mean all kind of things to all kinds of people, but each meaning is important, and if we could only see how universal it is because of those differences, the world would be a much better place.
The whole point of Loveless is that every story is a love story, well let me tell you one of my favourites:
I’d been living in London for 5 years and I had avoided riding the London Eye because I was saving it for when I finally had someone special to share the moment with. But in 2016, my father came for a visit. It had taken him nearly three years to process his passport, but finally, he was here, in a city that he’d only read about or saw in movies. The London Eye was something we came across on the telly back home on New Year’s Eve; we would gather around and watch the fireworks display as a family. And now there we were, riding one of the pods, just as the sun was starting to set.
Anyone who’s ever been on the London Eye will tell you that its excruciatingly slow, and at 15 minutes in you just want it to be over. But my Dad could not stop looking down on the Thames, and on all of London literally beneath our feet. And the whole time I had this big smile on my face when I looked around and realised, holy shit, my family was with me in my favourite city in the world. It was a magical moment. Better than any first kiss fantasies I’ve ever had.
Whoever you are, whatever your orientation, whether you’re alone or in a relationship right now, you deserve magical moments like that. You deserve joy.
Who knows what the future holds? Maybe next week I meet the love of my life and be married by the end of the year. Maybe I won’t.
But regardless, I wouldn’t consider myself loveless, because without even knowing or fully appreciating it, I am and have always been loved. And that is what makes this book so great. That is the message. Whether you’re gay, straight, bi, pan, ace, trans, queer, alone or in a relationship, we see you, and you are loved.
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.
I’m writing this on the eve of the easing of lockdown. Tomorrow, all non-essential establishments, including pubs, restaurants and (huzzah!) salons, are set to open. Living in central London, I foresee massive crowds and noise pollution around my neighbourhood as thousands and thousands of alcohol-deprived (yeah, right) Londoners flock like birds to the nearest Red Lion, or in my case, The Blue Post.
I’m struggling to not turn this into some kind of rant about how selfish people are being: moaning about how they haven’t had black daahl from Dishoom in 12 weeks, or that their roots are showing because their hair hasn’t been coloured in three months, or that Boris should really allow gyms to reopen because they couldn’t possible live without their Zumba class much longer.
Do not even get me started on the idiots who thought it was a good idea to trash Bournemouth beach during the heatwave last week.
I told a friend that all of this sort of makes a mockery of the sacrifices that health care workers have made during the pandemic period. I mean, you clap for us in one breath and defy social distancing and lockdown rules in the other. What was the point of it all? What was the point of the long hours in PPE, the night shifts spent huddled in anxiety because a COVID patient has just coughed all over you, or the agony of having to hold a dying patient’s hand because there was no one else but you who could do that for them?
Compared to all that, it seems kind of shallow to be moaning about missing having gin and tonic on top of your favourite rooftop bar doesn’t it?
But I’ve come to realise that human beings are simply not built to withstand so much suffering. There is only so much we can take in before we shut off. Collectively, we’ve all been overloaded by so many things these past three months, its really hard to believe we’re only halfway through the epic shitshow that is 2020. With everything that’s going on, I think something does have to give. We each will find our own ways of coping, we will find things that will enable us to carry on, and perhaps part of that is forgetting the incredibly traumatic experience of having lived though the first major pandemic since the 1912 Spanish plague.
When the shops reopened, I immediately went into the Mango website and spent 100£ on clothes that I would then return because I gained so much weight during the lockdown, that I now struggle too fit into a size 12 (more on this in a separate post lol). I spent three months only thinking about essentials, three months not spending my money on anything other than food and household supplies, but the minute lockdown started to ease, I started to think about the outfits I would wear, or that maybe I could start dating again after I finally managed to get a haircut (as if this was a major deciding factor on whether or not I could get a decent date lol).
The only thing I’d worried about during the lockdown was getting through the coronavirus pandemic with my physical, mental, and emotional health intact. I was praying the rosary everyday just asking God for me and everyone I love to still be alive after all of this. Then lockdown eased, and things started getting back to something close to resembling normal, and I started feeling anxious about getting extra shifts to earn more money, or whether or not I would ever get that dream job that feels like its so close, I can almost taste it. And of course, the ever present question of whether or not it was worth getting into dating again (am I the only one sensing a theme here?).
I guess I’m just trying to illustrate how easy it is to forget about your troubles when you’re given just the slightest hope that it has gone away. It doesn’t matter how much you tell people to be cautious, to remember what these past few months have been like and that i’s not over yet: you give them an inch of rope and they’ll run a mile with it, not because they’re insensitive creatures (at least the majority aren’t) and I don’t really think humans have the memory of a goldfish. But I think people forget because they want to forget. Because they need to forget.
We want, and in some ways we need, to chalk this up as just one extremely long nightmare episode. A blip. A wrinkle in time.
We were taught about homeostasis at school. No matter what happens internally or externally, the human body will always compensate to try and achieve a sense of homeostasis or ‘steady state’. I think that’s what we’re doing now that restrictions have been lifted. Forgetting is our way of going back to that steady state, no matter how different from what was once considered normal that state may be.
As a nurse, I’m obligated to remind people that this virus really hasn’t gone away, and we’re a long way away from any sort of vaccine just yet so it would be a bad idea to start visiting the pubs in droves tomorrow, but I truly appreciate that I’m in the minority here. So I guess…let the journey to forgetting and homeostasis begin.
In my head, I always equated the science fiction genre with weird looking aliens invading the earth and machines taking over the world and sending mankind into extinction. I was quite adamant in my belief that these are things I’d never be interested in reading. I’ve gotten better at expanding my horizons when it comes to my literary choices, but I’m a creature of habit; throughout the years I’ve stuck with the genres that are almost guaranteed to tickle my fancy – YA and romance to name a few.
I picked up The Garden, a collection of short stories written by Aaron Ramos, because I was fortunate enough to have gotten a preview, a taster really, of the kind of stories that this new author wants to share with the world. Elevated was one of the first sci-fi stories I’ve ever read, and I enjoyed it so much that afterwards I questioned my sanity at having ignored this genre for so long. Clearly, I’ve been missing out.
The book opens with Video Game Theory, which is really a story about a father’s love for his daughter – a truly emotional journey that still haunts me now, nearly a full month after I first read it. I’m a very emotional reader anyway, and to those of you who read my reviews quite often, this isn’t anything new, but as I read that story I was sobbing my heart out and clutching my chest in a way I haven’t done since I read The Kite Runner. Maybe it was just because I read it during the pandemic when I was missing my own father, but I thought it was just a real gut punch of a story. The book then closes with Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a short story that questions the very nature of our existence, exploring life’s often unanswerable questions with wit and biting humour that I’ve come to realise is the author’s signature style.
A lot of thought was put into the pacing, the sequencing, and I think even the order in which the stories are to be read. I like how one story just naturally flows, one into the other. There was always a sense of continuity and connectivity in all the stories, and I think a lot of what makes it so cohesive is rooted in Aaron’s point of view, his unique perspective of the world, and the kind of messages that he wants to send out to his readers through his writing.
In some respects, this book felt to me like a social commentary on the dangers of capitalism and the effect man is having on the environment. In other parts, it was a call for us to recognise that, despite our differences, we are all the same, and the things that make us all different should be celebrated rather than discriminated against. Considering that this book was published well before the Black Lives Matter movement, I think the author showed incredible foresight, not to mention insight, into the issues currently affecting society.
I am not an expert of this genre, obviously, but I thought the stories were well-researched; they were believable because they were founded on real scientific concepts. They capture the imagination and will make readers imagine a world that is somewhat similar to our own but also somehow different. However, what makes the stories even stronger, in my opinion, is that through it all Aaron never loses his grip on the human element of his stories. Strip away the robots, the advanced technologies, the chemical experiments and the fantastical elements and you find that at the heart of it are the very things that make us fundamentally human: love, loss, and the basic human need to understand and to be understood.
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?
Lockdown is making people feel all kinds of nostalgic. Its understandable: the present is looking a little bleak at the moment, and no one knows what’s going to happen in the future, so we comfort ourselves with thoughts of the past. My extended family has taken to sending old photographs in our messenger group, including some of myself that has led me to conclude that I was a cute baby but a freakin’ ugly kid who then grew up to be an okay-looking adult.
Anyway, I don’t think it gets anymore nostalgic than The Last Dance, a sports docu-series that’s currently on Netflix which tells the story of the 1997-98 championship winning season of the Chicago Bulls, starring the great Michael Jordan. Its made a lot of people into three-week basketball fans; its had such an impact that its even trending in the UK, a country where – when I first arrived and said I didn’t like football because I’ve grown up watching basketball instead, people looked at me like I had horns sprouting from my head.
Watching this documentary brings home the fact that so many of my childhood memories are centred around those Saturday NBA games on ESPN when we would all gather around the telly watching Michael do a lay-up or a fadeaway or another dunk – basically anything humanly (sometimes inhumanly) possible to win the game. I’ve been watching the episodes with my sister, who’s not a big sports fan but nonetheless could almost reflexively identify all the important players of that era even now, 23 year later.
I remember watching my brother and my male classmates go through a period where they worshipped everything Jordan-related. If a genie had appeared before my brother at age 8 I believe he would have asked for a pair of Air Jordans without so much as batting an eyelash. His face when my aunt finally sent one over from the States is what I imagine mine would be when I finally meet the love of my life (yeah, I just had to get that in there lol).
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care what other people say but nothing compares to watching a really good game of basketball, especially when you’re invested in the team and the players, as a fan or as a person. And I think the magic of MJ is in the way he makes you feel invested; he pulls you in with that attitude and that determination to win at all costs. There’s something to be said about a guy who believes in playing at the highest caliber at all times, because if you don’t, what’s the point in playing at all? Hey Mike, I want a sip of your Gatorade.
Watching this series, and getting to know the person behind the legend, I realise that I don’t really like Michael Jordan and I think a lot of people will agree with me; he’s kind of a dick. But I think people not liking him is a price he’s willing to pay for being GREAT at what he does. They don’t need to hug him on his way to the basket, they just need to get out of the way. I find myself wondering a lot of times while watching this series whether it was better to be liked or to be respected, and whether it was possible to be both.
When I was younger I used to be quite arrogant and a bit full of myself. I was probably masking some deep deep insecurities (which may or may not have been related to my weight issues) but the one thing I always had going for me was my intelligence. I knew I was smart. I was first on the honour roll from kindergarten onwards. I graduated class valedictorian in high school and had so many medals around my neck after the graduation ceremony you could hear them clanking as I walked.
Then I started college and for the first time I was around people who a) have not been my classmates since we were practically in diapers and b) who were just as if not more intelligent than I was. Suddenly I was in a class where we had 14 valedictorians and about half as many salutatorians. It was a whole other playing field. And like MJ (just so we don’t lose the thread here! Haha) I revelled in that. I pushed myself hard and I was determined to be the best of the best.
I’m a really competitive person. I want to win. I don’t want to do something if I can’t be great at it. I don’t believe in mediocrity. That attitude has gotten me to where I am today. But my greatest weakness has always been caring too much about what other people think. I have this pathological need to be universally liked. And in college, I rubbed a lot of people off the wrong way because what I thought was me being determined (and okay, showing off a little) most people saw as me being a complete bitch with a superiority complex. I still cringe at the thought of how much people I now call friends must have hated me in college. Oh well. At least they like me now.
Needless to say, I graduated college with one medal, a lot of friends, a more humble attitude and a greater appreciation of my place in the great circle of life.
Why am I suddenly bringing this up? I suppose its because I wonder where I would be if I had the same attitude as Mike…the whole isolation is the price of winning mentality that seems to be a characteristic of the greats. Is it worth it? Or is the old adage true, that its incredibly lonely up top all by yourself? I’m sure my feelings would have been different if you asked me when I was younger, but with the wisdom of old age I can say (with only a slight hesitation) that I would rather have friends than reluctant admirers. I would rather have people who will be there for me no matter what, even and especially if I fail – and its almost a guarantee that you will fail at some point in your life.
As usual I’ve managed to make this about me but whatever.
Takeaway messages from The Last Dance: Dennis Rodman is a Dude, Steve Kerr is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last and you should never judge a book by its cover, Scottie Pippen deserved better and finally, it takes a village. MJ wasn’t winning championships until he had a winning team. 72-10, baby.
P.S. this blog is in part dedicated to the guy whose job it was to shout “What time is it?” during the Bulls’ pre-game huddle. You, my man, are an icon.