Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Book Review: Under The Visible Life

I’m struggling to remember having ever read anything quite like this book. Even after hours of thought, I’m still casting about for anything I could use to make an apt comparison. Words like ‘unique’ and ‘incomparable’ get bandied around a lot in reviews, but I’m prepared to argue that for Under the Visible Life they just might be justified.

It intertwines the stories of two women – half-Chinese, half-American Katherine and half-Pakistani, half-American Mahsa – across the span of a lifetime, from the middle of the twentieth century all the way to the present day. It’s a sensory, sensual novel, exquisitely written, and guaranteed a place as one of the most quotable books I’ve ever read.

An only child watches adults with great attention trying to get clues about what life will be like, and whether it will be less solitary, because there is no other child to share what life is right now.

A theme explored constantly throughout the book is the multitude of struggles faced by the poor, the neglected and the forgotten – specifically, the struggles faced by women. The fact that both the protagonists are mixed-race adds another layer of nuance: the horrific ordeal endured by Katherine’s mother for the so-called crime of marrying a Chinese man makes for difficult reading, and Mahsa’s awful, inevitable forced marriage left me feeling cold. It’s a glimpse into another age, an entirely different way of thinking from the values of the modern Western world. The most radical thing a woman can do is live. Instead they both cling to their music, the one thing that unites and defines them, as a way to survive and thrive.

What makes Under The Visible Life work so well as the way in which it’s fundamentally a study in contradictions: whereas Mahsa is passive and thoughtful, Katherine is brash and impulsive, simply taking for herself the opportunity she wants – “I just walked onto the stage and started playing the piano” – uprooting herself from her old life to seek fame and fortune in New York. And yet it’s also a reflection on the common ground people can find between themselves, even across vast cultural divides.

I’m torn which half of the story I liked more. I started off preferring Katherine, but soon switched to Mahsa – then back to Katherine, then Mahsa again, and Katherine, then Mahsa once again. All of this is a long-winded way of saying I loved them both – within minutes I was drawn completely into each story, compulsively eager to know what would happen next. I wished they could have interacted more – their stories seemed to peel away from each other towards the end and head in completely separate directions – but the last fifty pages were a race to the finish.

If I could sum Under the Visible Life up in a sentence – and I’m not sure I can – I would say that it’s a tale of survival and determination in the face of adversity. It reminded me that for all the progress we’ve made in our society, there’s still much further to go. This is one I won’t be hesitating to recommend.

Pick it up. Pick it up NOW.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

My Struggle With Jane Austen

You ready?

I hate Pride and Prejudice.

Even as I write this, I can hear the literati at their keyboards around the world swooning in horror – well, maybe one or two people, at any rate. In any kind of gathering of people who love books, I’ve quickly learned that it’s just not okay to admit that you don’t like Pride and Prejudice. It’s simply not done, like scratching your genitals at a dinner party or liking your own status on Facebook. Pride and Prejudice is one of those impenetrable, untouchable classics that can’t ever be dislodged from the canon of English Literature. Even if you don’t really like it, you’re supposed to like it. Right?

It’s not that I don’t love the classics – I do. Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’urbervilles and Wuthering Heights rank among my all-time favourite novels. And I don’t harbour any sort of ill will towards Jane Austen, or women, or socialites. I just don’t like the book. I’ve given it more than one attempt, but whatever it is that everyone loves about it just hasn’t grabbed me yet.
I first met my future A Level English in 2010, on a school trip to Birmingham. Our first conversation went something like this.

“…and of course, we’ll be studying Pride and Prejudice later in the year.”

“Oh my god, I hate that damn book so much.”

A spasm of abject horror seemed to flicker across her face.

“It’s awful!” I continued, heedless of the icy chill picking up around me. “All those simpering, tedious posh women, fluttering around and drinking tea, bleating on and on about how they can’t find a decent husband? It has to be the most boring book in existence.”

She was silent for few seconds, clutching weakly at the tissue in her hand. Finally, with what seemed to be a tremendous effort, looking rather like someone had told her that her entire family had been decapitated in a horrific traffic collision, she bobbed her head weakly in my direction before abruptly turning and walking away.

Okay, I may have slightly overdramatised that conversation. Just slightly.

At the time, the fact that she would one day be grading my exam papers didn’t mean much to me. My friends – having already spent a year being taught by her – just stared at me in sheer disbelief. I was completely unaware that I’d just desecrated her favourite novel. And she was not happy about it.

I tried. Honestly I tried. A few weeks into the first term, one Saturday I lay on my bed and resolved to get it over with. I would read Pride and Prejudice from cover to cover. I would finish it, once and for all.

I think I managed to get about eight chapters in. Quite impressive, considering. Bar the opening couple of lines, which probably everyone in the English-speaking world has heard at some point, not a single sentence managed to hold my interest. I just couldn’t do it.

Alright, I've spent enough time bashing the book - let's move on to a few days ago, when my sister and I went to go and see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’d heard some good things. Surely, I thought, the silly-but-surely-inspired addition of zombies could make Pride and Prejudice enjoyable for me?

Instead, I found myself slightly puzzled by what I saw.

I had expected something silly, subversive, maybe even slapstick – something in the style of Edgar Wright, maybe – but that wasn’t what I got.

Despite its comical premise, the film doesn’t go for laughs. This to me felt like a massively missed opportunity – there’s a lot of humour to wring from the bizarre juxtaposition of a zombie plague and high Georgian society, with ladies in extravagant dinner dresses strapping katanas to their thighs and practicing wu shu. Instead it's all treated rather more seriously. There’s not all that much comedy, not much subversion, and – funnily enough – not that many zombies, to be honest. Instead the screentime focuses on slowly developing the Elizabeth-Darcy love plot, albeit with the occasional addition of swordfighting and pistols – there’s one genuinely amusing scene where Elizabeth and Darcy talk about their feelings while sparring with each other, managing to tear the room they’re in apart in the process. It's a pretty faithful adaptation. I remember thinking that you could leave the cinema to go to the toilet, miss a zombie scene, and assume you were watching a straight adaptation.

I felt the cast, also, to be a mixed bag. Charles Dance is woefully underused as Mr Bennett, and he and Sally Phillips have a complete and utter lack of chemistry (one or both of them was miscast; they don’t look anywhere near the same age). Similarly, Lena Headey was an odd choice to play Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and has little to do except sit around making barbed retorts. Matt Smith, however, is delightful as Mr Collins, redefining the word ‘oily’. Lily James was a likeable enough heroine, though I felt she didn’t have a lot to work with.

Ultimately my main takeaway was that PAPAZ doesn’t seem sure what it wanted to be. There’s a handful of jokes, (mainly courtesy of Smith) but the whole film is leaden with this grim, faux-epic tone that makes it feel oddly like a dark fantasy like Maleficent or Snow White and the Huntsman. It just didn’t work for me, sadly.

It looks like not even the addition of swordfighting and zombies can get me to enjoy Pride and Prejudice… what beloved books do you secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) despise?

Friday, 29 January 2016

Too Early For Flapjacks?

I have a confession to make.

I don’t like being late. In fact, I can’t stand it. It’s like a disease.

We all know someone like that, right? Well, I don't. Because that person is me.

Seriously. I’m not joking, the need to be scrupulously on time for things is something I simultaneously love and loathe about myself. If I’m late for anything – anything at all – I start to panic. It doesn’t matter what it is: a job interview, a party, a casual drink at the pub with friends, the funeral of a distant relative (okay, that last one kind of makes sense)… suddenly I’m sweating, every muscle in my body seems to tense, and I’m finding it a little hard to breathe. If I’m behind schedule, it makes me feel awful. Seriously, it can ruin my day entirely.

I don’t know why I can’t lighten up about this. Perhaps it’s got something to do with my unforgiving and abiding sense of impatience. Or maybe it’s born from an inherent and desperate desire to make a good impression. Who knows? Either way, it seems to be something I can’t shake. Being late makes me feel embarrassed and jumpy and makes me worry what people will think of me.

The fun doesn’t end there, though. If anything, I compensate way too much for my fear of being late by being way too early for things.

Like, really early.

Like, no, seriously, ridiculously early.

What, you want proof? I’ve been known to show up to work half an hour before I need to be there. I’ve spent many a morning hanging around outside a locked room waiting for everyone else to arrive for a university lecture or seminar. On one truly horrifying occasion I was a whole week early to a meeting, but that was more down to me misreading my calendar than anything else, so that doesn’t really count. But still.

Being obsessively early has not done me a whole lot of favours over the years. When people say that showing up early is a good trait, they tend to mean people who arrive five minutes before they’re needed, not fifty. It tends to get me a lot of exasperated looks.

Considering my borderline-obsession with being on time, you would think that I’d have surrounded myself with people as rigorous and anal about time-keeping as myself over the years, but no. My friends are some of the greatest people in the world; I love them as dearly as I do my family, but I sometimes think it would kill half of them to be on time. Or, god forbid, early.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a couple of perks to my (not-so-secret) mania. For one thing… you’re guaranteed your choice of seat wherever you go. If when I’m early to something important like a job interview, it leaves a comfortable stretch of time in which to run through your routine in your head. And if I’ve got a book to hand, it gives me a chance to read a couple of chapters while I wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

Please tell me I’m not alone in this. There has to be someone out there who’s worse than me.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

This Post Needs A Title.

Hi there. Long time no see!

I spent a long time pondering over the title to give this blog. It took a while. I had to be sure I was choosing the right one. One that I liked, and which gives you, as the person reading this, an idea of what is I'm actually writing about.

Well, it turns out I'm writing about words. If there's one thing I love, it's words. Words are incredible. Words can quite literally do anything. 

Titles are a great way to illustrate this point. Titles can wield extraordinary power. Remember when you were seven years old and had to write a story for your English lesson and your teacher said that a good title was important? They weren’t wrong. If anything they were playing it down.

It’s crazy how much leverage a title can have, be it a news headline or a person’s name. Take for instance when I’m browsing for a new book to read. Even if a blurb fails to pique my interest, a really good title is what grabs your attention in the first place. Sometimes I'm half tempted to buy a book I don't particularly like the sound of, purely because I really liked the title. There are so many fantastically-named books out there, and for a lot of them their names were what compelled me to pick them up at all.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, for instance, is a book I think is perfectly titled: it's simple and yet not, slightly comical, and - crucially - it's memorable. It’s a book that’s never failed to interest the (numerous) people I’ve recommended it to, and I’m convinced that its name did at least some of the work in this regard.

I’d love to know what you think. Which titles have grabbed your attention? Are there any titles that you utterly loathe? Voice your opinion below. Let's see who can provide the best one!