Be Bold

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Summarising a DeLillo novel is always a tricky task. Well, it’s about football, but also about nuclear war, but then it’s about power and masculinity, about language and the way we use it and are used by it. That’s summary of End Zone. Technically, it’s a novel about a kid called Gary Harkness who goes to play football on a college scholarship in Texas. Along the way, he meets a girl he likes, spends some time with football players (not sure they could be called friends) and gets a bit obsessed with the possible outcomes of a nuclear attack.

Considering the fact that it was written in the seventies, Gary’s creepy insistence on finding out the exact effects, death toll and long-term impact has clear links to the paranoid population during the Cold War. In the novel, it’s the stark way these things are reported that makes it seem unusual. Detached, inhuman; “First to sixth hour after detonation the ground-zero circle is drenched with fallout. By the end of the first day the dose-rate begins to slow down…It all depends on the megatons.” DeLillo is reducing humanitarian crises into a series of bare facts. The result is surprisingly amusing, perhaps because it is so absurd.

In the same way, he deconstructs football into a series of inane sayings, pep talks and sheer blunt-headed violence. “Gary, on the thirty-two I want you to catapult out of there. I want you to really come. I want to see you zoom into the secondary.” Even if you knew what they were talking about (and I don’t), as the novel progresses it all blurs into nonsense. The training on the field bleeds through into their social time, the classes they take and their friendships, until the entire scope of human interaction feels like it’s been pared down into a series of fixed responses. Take it at face value and it’s a way of looking at how ridiculous masculine culture around sport is. Dig a little deeper, and perhaps he’s pulling apart the very basis for most of our interactions and urges – driven by consumerism, charged with greed and the struggle for power.

The characters speak in jargon. They speak in phrases that sound like they have been cobbled directly from textbooks, stories or news bulletins. They also largely speak around each other, rarely interacting. Again, this is funnier that it sounds. With the characters talking at odds, or obsessively circling around a fixed topic, the reader is given a rare treat – hovering over the characters, peering into their weird little world and marvelling at it.

Initially, DeLillo had a small but loyal following. Once novels like White Noise came along, he went from cult writer to critically acclaimed author. In this, his second novel, there’s something really beautiful about the way it feels choppy, intense, perhaps less considered than his later novels. It’s also impressive to see how early on his distinctive voice and sarcasm sears through his writing.

From a writer’s perspective, I think DeLillo is a lesson in staying true to yourself. No matter how ridiculous his prose might seem to some, it’s a distinctive style that captures an essence of communication, rather than attempting to create true speech. Who could do that anyway? What we experience as dialogue in fiction is always a pared down version, a crafted method of storytelling. DeLillo invites us to be a little more bold with our words, and not accept those that have come before as our models.

On Finishing a First Draft

It is done. I have typed the last word, finished the last scene, put my (relatively) new characters to bed. In celebration of this, I wanted to share some piece that I figured someone would have written about how great it was to have accomplished this. Alas, I was wrong. All of the posts I found revolved around what comes next. Where to go next, how to edit, all of that stuff that I was really hoping not to think about for a few weeks. I can understand the need to focus on improvement, but there should be something about the simple achievement of getting this far. So I thought I’d write one myself.

It’s the second novel I’ve written. A bit weird, compared to the first. While writing the first one, I had scheduled meetings with my tutor, a deadline for a certain number of words, I had to hand in the plot structure and have it assessed, all of that stuff. I wrote it on a Masters course at City University. Which was amazing. It gave me the structure and guidance I needed to make it through writing my first novel. It also allowed me to get over a lot of the pitfalls that I feel I would have had if I’d just gone ahead and written one. Especially seeing as, for the first one, I wrote a dual narrative. Who thought that was a good idea for a first novel?! Juggling two plots and voices, as well as tinkering between the two to create an interwoven narrative was not an easy task. This one, by comparison, is a more straightforward first-person story, which has been a little easier. It’s also been quite freeing. Away from the need to have anyone peruse my work, I’ve allowed myself to go wherever I wanted to with it. Like my imagination’s been let out for once.

And, you know what, other writers, it is easier. Every time we had a visiting author, we asked that hopeful question – does it get easier? Of course we did, we were all at the point where we thought every sentence we wrote was utter garbage and clearly we were never going to finish anything decent anyway. Every time, without fail, they all said that, no, of course not, writing a book was always hard. Needless to say, this did little to boost our morale.

I beg to differ. Of course I’ve only written a first draft, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of work, but it is still easier. If nothing else, having got to the end of an enormous piece of writing once, at least I know I can actually do it. That in itself makes the process less arduous. Not only that, you’ve already tripped yourself up over your own mistakes and failures for nigh on two (creeping towards three) years. So of course it’s not as hard. Perhaps as you write more it’s easy to forget that first one, the one that got you out of the blocks. Or maybe when you get so absorbed in your new project and it’s hard going it fools you into thinking that you are going through the same process again. Of course you are, to a certain extent, but experience changes you, and pretending otherwise just makes you sound pretentious.

What also doesn’t help, is all of the, ‘oh so-and-so wrote a book in three months/two weeks/a minute,’ talk. Of course, it makes for a more exciting, press release, but it’s also bollocks. What they mean is, they finished the first draft in a ridiculously short amount of time. After that, it would have gone through a huge number of edits, rewriting, proof reading, making the magical process not quite as magical, but a little more achievable for us mere mortals. Also, most people have to do other jobs, which makes it take a little longer! So yes, it took me 9 months. I still think that’s not bad.

But here I am, veering off the point. what I wanted to say is – it feels great. Under my own steam, with very little feedback, I have finished a story that I first had the idea for about a year ago. I researched it, I talked through my ideas with people, created a story, characters who I now feel are real people, and I got to the end. It’s not nearly often enough that we are told to just sit back and give ourselves a little pat on the back for a job well done. So the same goes for you too. Nice one, whatever it is you’re feeling proud of today.

In a world where we constantly seek for the next ‘target’ or ‘goal,’ let’s sit back and just enjoy the pleasure of having achieved something. Doesn’t that feel good?

We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

Squirrelling About – The Portable Veblen

It’s not often I finish a book in which the plot is almost entirely about a relationship, and I feel that it has been time well spent. Perhaps because of the squirrels, or the light-hearted take on the evils of big pharmaceutical companies, but whatever it is, The Portable Veblen has it.

I really don’t like the word ‘quirky.’ While it technically is just a way of describing something a little bit different, I always associate it with despicable practices like wearing a small hat at a jaunty angle on your head, or a hand-made printed T-shirt, just to be different. But I’m finding it hard to attribute another adjective to this novel. Our main character, Veblen, works at a dismally mundane job, taking into her hands the thankless task of translating, amongst other things, the works of the great Thorstein Veblen, into Norwegian. Add to that a propensity for finding spiritual connections with squirrels and a mother with severe hypochondria and you have, well, a quirky character.

The novel opens with a proposal. That, in itself, is refreshing. At least we’re avoiding the simplified notion that this is what comes at the end of a narrative. Paul, her new fiancé, is attempting to be as unquirky as he possibly can. Raised by hippy parents in what can only be described as a commune, with a disabled brother, Paul is desperate for the boring life of tamed suburbia. Put the two together, and of course you can see that this is not a story of love that will run smoothly.

But this novel is far more than a funny romance. Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, it has a wry wit that enables Elizabeth McKenzie to embark on an exploration of everything from a nation obsessed with war-mongering to mental illness. Her sharp observations are often uncomfortable, although she always seems to find the ridiculous and touching moments, even within the truly horrifying.

A quick flick through the book will reveal that a huge percentage of this book is written entirely in dialogue. This is no mean feat. New writers (myself included) often shy away from using too much dialogue, as it is incredibly difficult to not come across as cheesy, clichéd or downright clumsy. Of course, allowing your characters to speak is exactly what will bring them to life, but creating words that not only reveal personalities but also move the plot forward is more than tricky.

At its core, this is a book about all human relationships. The sacrifices, allowances and annoyances that we endure and cherish in order to develop the most important thing we can on the planet – a connection with each other.

The Unbearable Inconsistency of Levin

While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!

It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.

And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.

From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.

To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.

What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).

It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.

This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.

But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.

So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.

Why I’m Not an Angry Feminist

Today I had the joy of experiencing a running buddy while out on the streets. As I ran past him, he came into step beside me, waving his arms and making silly high pitched noises. After which he collapsed in giggles, so amused by the sight of a woman running down the road. All of this was done in the sight of, not a crowd of jeering lads, but what I assume was his young daughter. I can only imagine the lessons she has learnt about the value of women through her eyes as she watched this ridiculous display.

I wish it were rare. In the long time I have been running, I have experienced many things, such as a man stopping his car, winding down the window, then telling me I was ‘very nice indeed.’ There have been whistles, murmurs of approval, or sometimes just blatant staring. The other side of the reaction was a man telling me and my friend to ‘speed up, girls,’ as we ran past.

In the summer, it’s hot. What that means is, the most comfortable outfit for running is a pair of cycling shorts and a vest. I happen to have DD boobs. Believe me, this causes enough trouble in the choice of sports bra (Shock Absorber, absolutely brilliant), without having to factor in the reactions I might get in the street. A friend of mine, who is similarly endowed, posted on Facebook after being thoroughly pissed off after receiving a similar comment. Her (female) friend posted underneath that it was because of her boobs, and that she should feel flattered. What this is essentially saying, is that women of certain dimensions, or who happen to fit into socially acceptable views of ‘beauty,’ should not only expect and deserve unwanted attention, they should feel flattered by it. Extrapolate this argument, and it forms the basis of excusing someone who was groped on the Tube because they happened to have a nice bum and were wearing a skirt. Take it to the extreme and it’s exactly the same argument used to defend rape. Well of course it happened, she looked a certain way and was wearing certain clothes. Is it as bad? No, of course not, but it is a different shade of the same spectrum.

As always, I spent the rest of my run furiously planning a fantastic comeback for the next time it happened. I wanted to tell the idiot that told us to speed up that we were 8 miles into a 10 mile run, and already pretty knackered. I wanted to tell the guy on the street last week who told me to ‘smile, love,’ that my face does not exist solely for decorative purposes.

And there the floodgates opened. The times that people are surprised that I have an opinion about something political or scientific because I am blonde, or the times I have been advised to ‘steady on’ when enjoying a meal at the risk of getting fat. The time I had someone correct me when I said I had run 20 miles. Oh, you mean 20k, they said. The time someone had an entire conversation with me and didn’t look above my breasts. The time I saw a woman tittering and deferring to her boyfriend like a brainless idiot in order to appear more attractive. The times I’ve been told I’m ‘not like normal girls’ because I like playing computer games, or watching sci-fi films, or like drinking beer or whiskey. The time I was repeatedly charged for work on my car that hadn’t happened. The time I was pulled into the office by my boss (also a woman) who told me that my colleagues had complained about my clothing because it was ‘distracting.’

I could go on. There are times when I am so damn jealous of men. How lovely it must be to never have to put up with this shit. How beautiful it must be to walk freely down the road and not be expected to move out of everyone else’s way, just because you were born with a uterus.

These things exist in the world because of a patriarchal society. They do not exist because men are inherently horrible. Both men and women are to blame for perpetuating and excusing these behaviours, and it is a source of extreme annoyance that the idiot that waved his arms to me on the street today will cause me sleepless nights when I play the incident over and over in my head, and wish that I had thought of something to say before I had run past, that at least could have stayed in the mind of the little girl standing next to the wall, watching my humiliation.

I’m not an angry feminist, I’m bloody furious. And so should everyone be. Take that list of things that I have experienced in my life. Apply it to your sister, your niece, your aunt, your mother. It is not good enough that being born a different gender (insert colour, sexual preference, gender identification, any other ridiculous way people are categorised as ‘different’ here) means you are treated in a way that makes you feel humiliated. No-one should have to experience that. The next time some idiot says something like that to me, I sincerely hope I have the courage to call them out on it. Please join me. It’s the only way we can make this world a better place.

After Me Comes the Flood

Last month, I went to the Emerald Street Literary Festival. Filled with intelligence, literature and inspiring ideas, it was a fantastic day out. And, best of all, it had a bookshop. In the end, me and my friend decided to buy three books each, that way we were effectively getting double for our money, as we could swap as soon as we’d finished. Nothing better than the feel of a weight of new books in your hand. The first I read was a debut novel by Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood.

In the middle of a heatwave, John Cole decides to get away from the heat of the city and visit his brother. On the way, he has car trouble and find himself at a strange house, where the residents seem not only to know him, but to have been expecting him. We follow his tentative steps to discover the true nature of the people around him, without revealing his true identity, and explore the eerie world the house has brought him to.

This is an intense novel. It could’t be any longer than it is (230 pages), if only for the suffocating atmosphere that imbues it from the very beginning. Her prose is also thick and dense, which helps to create the overall atmosphere of a stifling summer.

The setting is almost other-worldly. While no specific time reference is given, we could be in Victorian times once we arrive at the strange old house. With a piano, peeling paper and artefacts scattered around, the place seems completely isolated from the outside world. The threads of the truth begin to slowly untangle, and we are led, bit by bit, into the strange world the residents inhabit.

Elijah is a priest who has lost his faith, Claire is a childlike woman, Alex, her brother, is a fragile young man and Walker seems separate from the rest, while Eve is an entrancing pianist. Presiding over them all is Hester, a forceful matriarch who steers the course of all of those in the house as though they were her children. Perry creates a highly atmospheric interior, with lots of references to colour and shade, along with religious imagery. This heightens the importance of the house, and gives it a refuge-like quality, as if the people inside are choosing to cocoon themselves within.

Of course, if you spend a large part of a novel building up to a mystery, there needs to be a decent payoff that is equal to the level of suspense that has been created. I think, in this case, the novel was a little lacking. The reasons behind the people and their pasts seemed a little neat, perhaps obvious, and I would have liked to have seen something a bit more complex or shocking to counteract the tension that was built up earlier in the novel.

Having said that, the level of intrigue is not what the novel hinges on. The blurb is a bit of a mis-sell, as it implies that we are almost in thriller territory. A decision by the publishers to make the book appealing, no doubt, but that perhaps makes the content not live up to the promises made on the back of the book. What you are getting is something quite different. A dark, elusive book that takes time to linger on details in beautiful prose and to explore the fragmented reality we all inhabit, and how we might end up clinging to the most unlikely of people or situations, in order to feel at peace.

Sarah Perry has produced a notable first book, the tone and character of it lingered long after I read it. Not enthused perhaps, but certainly haunted.

Empress Orchid – The Mistrusted Empress

I first heard about ‘Empress Cixi’ through a BBC documentary called ‘The Ascent of Woman.’ An impressive summary of a huge swathe of human history, the programme asked questions about the subjugation of women over the centuries, and examined the reasons behind it. Much of it was startling, such as the fact that covering women up with veils was considered appropriate to show status and sexual promiscuity, many hundreds of years before Islam existed as a faith. It also examined the deep suspicion of women, their sexuality and their motives, and the way they have been mis-represented in history. One of these cases is the basis for the novel ‘Empress Orchid,’ written by Anchee Min. In it, we discover the hidden past of the woman who went on to be the main political power in Imperial China for 47 years. Historically, she has traditionally been painted as a devious despot, who was largely responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty. However, this may well be another case of the mistrust powerful women are afforded.

She started out her life as a relative pauper, her father holding a position in local government. When they came to Beijing, she was promised to a less than spectacular cousin in order to try and sort out the family finances. Instead, she decides to enter a kind of ‘lottery’ that chooses the wives and concubines of the emperor. Due to her Manchu origin (the Manchu ruled over the Han Chinese for thousands of years) and beauty, she is selected to be one of that ‘wives’ of the emperor. She is effectively a very high-ranking concubine. As the story progresses, her relationship with the emperor and his ‘main’ wife develops, and she finds herself in a far more favourable and powerful position than she ever set out to be.

The description of the wealth and luxury of the Chinese court are fantastic. Having visited the Forbidden City myself, I know how intricate and detailed the carvings, buildings and palaces are. To see it through the eyes of Yehonla as she enters, and as gifts are bestowed upon her, is wonderful. Jewels, gold, silk, diamonds, all of these things are lavished on each item she and the other woman possess. Shoes become priceless objects, trays and wall decorations are the work of gifted craftsmen. It truly transfers us to another world, a place where a man can have thousands of women to choose from to secure his future heirs, a place where bathing and making yourself beautiful takes half a day, and a funeral procession involves tens of thousands of people and can last for weeks. In hindsight, it seems impossible that such wealth and splendour were available to so many (admittedly, a tiny percentage of the population). But then, if you leave peasants to starve in fields, I’m sure there’s more than enough for your gold teapot. It gives us a window into a forgotten and lost world, full of extremes.

The personal story of Yehonala is an interesting one. Min decided to follow her story from her poor beginnings to the moment when she gains her power. That seems reasonable enough, there are many writings on her as an Empress and it is good to see the ‘hidden’ part of who she was, even if it is a fictionalised account. Nonetheless, I think I would have liked to have seen more of her afterwards, to get a sense of the woman she became, as well as how she got there. If you want to read more about that part of her life, The Last Empress, also by Anchee Min, follows her later life.

A rather frustrating element in the book is the timeline. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a researcher to take disparate events in a person’s life, especially when there is so little to be found for this particular person, and then weave it together into a coherent narrative. However, there were places where we seemed to shift forwards or backwards to a few months or weeks later, with little sense of progression. I suspect she wanted to include certain details and just included them in the ongoing story, but it might have made the book flow better if she had considered more carefully where to place them and how they contributed to the overall narrative.

I think the parts I enjoyed most concerned the diplomatic and political situation of the time. While all the fancy bits were pretty, I was fascinated to discover a country that truly perceived itself as far superior to others in every way, and considered the rest of the world to be barbarians in comparison. The mistrust and lack of diplomatic success of China historically is far more understandable in this context. The marginalised role of women and the careful and surreptitious ways Yehonala has to manipulate her way into having any influence over her life or that of her family is also very illuminating. No doubt this is where the label of ‘devious’ comes from. However, when viewed from her perspective, you can see that the only way such a person could have any say in her own world would be through less diplomatic means.

Ultimately, Empress Cixi managed to gain and hold influence over a global power for decades in an era that barely allowed women the right to choose their clothes, let alone their destiny. This book is an important fictionalisation of a remarkable woman. We must remember how skewed our view of history is, and try our best to rediscover the forgotten women that helped to shape it in ways we do not understand. That alone makes it worth a read.

A Little Life

a-little-life-9781447294832There’s something immensely satisfying in a novel that appears to start out one way, and then takes you somewhere you weren’t expecting.

Initially, A Little Life appears to be a well-written if slightly superficial account of a group of young men in New York. The prose is beautiful, but not laboriously so. At a moment of poignant observation, we are treated to a delightful turn of phrase. What separates this from wordy writers that just like to describe everything, is that these moments are always tied to the emotions of the character. I never felt that I was being told things for the sake of it, which is a rather tricky thing to do.

However, as the novel progresses, we discover that the stories that fit between this existence are far more complex than we imagined. From public displays of fun at parties or dinners, we are taken into the minds and memories of each character, finding out their insecurities and foibles, knowing them better than their friends ever will.

As a result of this, we see the nuance of all of the characters very early on. The chapters are weighty and dense, flitting about from present to past, disclosing the hidden parts of themselves, which of course colours the way we read them in the future. In this way, her characters cannot become stereotypes. Because we see the myriad reasons behind what they do, the reason they lie or cheat or let down each other, each one is a deftly written portrait, with unexpected hues in the background.

There are times it can feel a bit too weighty. The burden of responsibility, of knowing these people so intricately, can be a little difficult. This is especially the case if you put the book down for a day or two, and then come back to it to find you’ve forgotten what it was you found out about them in the last bit that was so important. This became more problematic when the voice shifted. I liked very much that we weren’t told exactly who was speaking. In one chapter, we see an event that has already happened, through the eyes of a different character. While I appreciated the shift, I had to flick back and remind myself of who it was that had that particular view of the beach that day they went walking. I am happy to be asked to work hard as a reader, and it is something I do a little too often in my own writing, but it did jolt the flow of the story when I had to interrupt my reading to figure out where we were.

However, my main concern was the lack of female characters. They skirted around the edges, coming and going, never leaving anything indelible on the male characters they interacted with. But a book about men can still explore gender roles. I can forgive it because the book is about male relationships, and egos, and the complex and problematic nature of friendships when they are influenced by external pressure to be ‘manly’ and conceal true emotions. In this way, it can be seen as an examination of the limits patriarchal society places on men, and the struggles they have to engage with each other when expectations of them are stilted and fixed.

I found myself more and more intrigued by this world, the light was going out later and later each night before bed. Although it is very much a large tome (720 pages) the length felt necessary in order to fully appreciate the depth of the characters and the scale of their life. After all, we follow them for decades. I even carried it around with me in my bag one day (my back did not thank me) because I couldn’t bear to leave the characters alone when I left the house.

Although we circle around the group initially, it soon becomes clear that we are focusing on a central character: Jude. He is a mild man, who always feels separate and different, but we are not entirely sure why. As we enter his head more and more often, we discover his disturbing past and the reason he pulls  away so frantically from those that love him. What was equally frustrating but also compelling, is that Yanigihara doesn’t let him make the right decisions. She allows his doubts to shape his actions, continually trying to damage himself and those around him in order to prove that he really isn’t worth the time and attention they want to lavish on him. It speaks all the more truthfully of the state of a human mind and its fragility.

On finishing the book, I felt I had met these people. Their stories were linked and woven with mine and it would not have surprised me to read about them in the paper or bump into them on the street. Rarely have I felt so completely that a person existed. In trying to put my finger on the reason why, I think it was the minute details of their worlds. An event here, a dropped item or scarf there, an intimate moment that is left dangling, all of these things build up a picture of, well, a life. This is what allows the reader, with the characters, to look back on a moment from the beginning of the book with yearning remembrance, as if we too experienced the passing of time and the weight it left.

It is indeed a little life that we all live. Yanigahara has managed to capture at least one between the pages of a book. An impressive feat.

Why it Doesn’t Matter What’s in Your Pants

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Genderspecs – Challenging gender stereotypes, one blog at a time

It’s a pretty exciting week for those struggling to be accepted outside of gender norms. Based on recommendations made by the women and equalities committee, there’s a whole load of reasons to be cheerful for the future. Hopefully, we can start to pare away people’s gender-biased assumptions and place less importance on the need to conform.

Finally, being transgender will no longer be deemed a mental illness. That one seems to be a bit of a no-brainer, but it wasn’t that long ago that you needed to prove you had mental problems before you could even be considered for gender reassignment. Reviews will also look at the need to specify ‘gender’ on a number of public documents – everything from passports to bank accounts will be questioned. I’ve always wondered why my bank manager needs to know who I like to sleep with or what’s residing between my thighs in order to deem me worthy of putting a few quid into an account. Now they won’t need to.

There’ll also be major surveys into the needs of trans people, as well as working with universities to combat transphobic bullying. It’s about time that this marginalised group of people got a bit of airtime. These measures are fantastic for the trans community, but also a huge step forward for everyone, who will no longer need to be defined by narrow gendered views.

It’s always mystified me how much truck people put on genitalia. It’s not like we let that many people see it on a daily basis, it isn’t something that we wear with the same pride as a new outfit or haircut, and yet for many its used as a symbol of oppression and marginalisation.

And trans people aren’t the only ones that are worried about their bits. Female genitalia in particular is often a cause for concern. A disturbing recent survey found that 400 under-18s in the US had labioplasty. In layman’s terms, that means you go under the surgeon’s knife because you think your vulva is ugly. Never mind what on earth their parents are thinking, the real head-scratcher is why so many girls angled a mirror up between their legs and were so horrified at what they saw that they felt the need to make themselves look normal. Oh the bloody irony. On one side of the globe we’re fighting to protect young girls from being mutilated, while on the other side they’re handing over thousands of dollars to voluntarily lose their nerve endings. What a weird world we do live in.

But then, the vulva doesn’t get a lot of airtime. Look on the underside of any school desk or the wall in a loo and you’ll find a lovely cock and balls (hair and spurting optional). The penis is reproduced ad nauseum in sculptures, buildings (the Gherkin? Just a giant phallus) and a plethora of paintings, whereas the humble vagina doesn’t get much of a look-in. It’s quite pretty, looks a bit like a flower, although you could be forgiven for thinking it’s some sort of mythical beast. A Japanese artist made a 3-D print of hers and turned it into a canoe. If we didn’t limit our representations of half of the world, perhaps that would also help us to stop making judgements about people based on their sexual organs. Just a thought.

The distrust of feminine sexuality is just the other side of the same coin. In our search for easy classification of each other, we’ve plumped for sexual organs as the easiest way to do that. But what a misnomer they are. Having a clitoris doesn’t predispose you to being crap at Maths, just as much as having a penis doesn’t limit your artistic expression. No wonder that some people find it that much harder to take the step to appreciating that your genitals might not indicate your gender at all.

So no, I don’t care what’s in your pants. Or what it looks like. We all come in glorious shapes and sizes, and I’m delighted that the government has decided to get on board and reach out to those who can’t see themselves in the narrow tick-boxes we assign to life.