Death in Venice, deathly menace

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Looking morbid… 

As Thomas Mann is a fellow German, I am glad that our nation -somewhat sidelined for engineering and precision- was represented in the literature-classics-to-be-read list. However having read Death in Venice, I now vote that it should be removed from said list, even if it means Germany is once again shunned.

Famously a short-story, I was expecting Death In Venice to be packed with electrifying plot twists and wildly unexpected turns. At 70 pages, there is plenty of room for a proper character arc and plot development, however it seems that Mann didn’t get the memo because he spent 47 pages just dwelling on the beauty and seeming greatness of Tadzio.

‘a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio’s beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many’

Now I’m sure Aschenbach would have rejoiced at the modern era; Facebook and Instagram are the perfect tools for stalking certain individuals, and there would hardly be a millennial who would say that they weren’t guilty of this, but- an essay on Tadzio? The following of him around? The commitment to him even at the risk of death? It’s all very hyperbolic and excessive, which I understand is the point of Death In Venice so I cannot criticise that. What is problematic is the extent of time that Mann dedicates to the same scenes of wonder and adoration; of course content should reflect the feelings of the protagonist, but readers don’t need 70% of the book solely focusing on the description of a secondary character. It was unsurprising that Ascenbach would die in the end, as unfortunately Mann gave that away in the title, but I thought that the end still wouldn’t be so blindingly predictable? There are only so many ways that the protagonist could die, and dying cholera was the first and most probable on the list.

SUPPOSEDLY BRILLIANT WRITERS SHOULD NOT BE PREDICTABLE

If only Mann were alive to read this. He would learn so much. You see there is utterly no point in reading if the plot resolution can be visualised preemptively, otherwise the thrill and engagement aspects are eliminated, which are what makes the process so enjoyable in the first place. And as a short story, Mann has a particular duty to finish surprisingly or with a twist, but the death was obvious (again, title), so there was nothing to make up for the long drawn out descriptions. It is even difficult to find a climax at any point. So superficially, the book’s awful. It just blabbers on.

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me waiting for the part where it becomes interesting 

So, what are the deeper meanings? Can they save Mann and catapult him back into literary greatness? Clearly pederasty is a major theme and is ultimately what shot the story to fame. It is rarely discussed in a literary form now and even less then, and so many people are be fascinated by this notion of infatuation, and exploring this within the context of a book is a rather comforting way to deal with the problem. Paedophilia often haunts newspapers but is rarely spoken about as a society unlike murder or theft due to embarrassment or awkwardness, and so it seems that ultimately in the novella form allows people to see it and truly stare it into eyes, and sit by themselves and decide what they think of it and why, as discussion of the topic is somewhat limited. Fundamentally Aschenbach is a paedophile and it’s written from his perspective, but interestingly Aschenbach justifies his lust by comparing himself to the ancient Greeks, saying he was acting the warriors did then. Nice try, but the Greeks also forced women to wear veils and stay indoors, and I don’t Aschenbach endorsing that part of society. One cannot pick and choose parts of culture to emulate, if one is going to hold up that entire culture to form the basis as justification for what is a modern day crime.

The one redeeming feature of Death in Venice could be the cholera. Cholera was the sriracha to the otherwise bland bowl of rice the plot was. Ironically, in the opening Aschenbach longs for far-off countries with unconventional scenes and happenings. Guess what, Aschenbach didn’t have to go to India to experience the fun, India (in the form of cholera) came to him. (If cholera could be called fun. Who knows? Aschenbach lived a very sheltered life, so perhaps anything goes for the thrill-factor.) Cholera could even represent the way his lust for Tadzio consumes him, and even kills him; his emotions cause him to stay in Venice even when he knows it’ll eventually lead to his physical decline, just as chlorea actually leads to his death. It’s a double-edged symbol and rather fun once thought about. But Mann, there needs to be more than one turn per 70 pages. Come on now.

The secondary characters are worth considering, and although there is analysis, it’s not particularly mind-blowing. The man at the graveyard, for instance, is masculine with his bulging Adam’s apple and also hideous because of his ‘permanent facial deformity’. So he’s everything which Tadzio isn’t. This doesn’t mean that the Graveyard Man is a precursor or foreshadows the relationship, but if we’re searching amongst scraps for something to say to help merit Mann, then maybe it reveals that Aschenbach who is describing him, is only focusing the features which revolts him the most ? He craves youthfulness and beauty, so the antithesis of these attributes shock him and captures his attention. This line of argument applies to the man on the boat with the make-up, feigning adolescence whilst the ugliness part can be applied to the minstrel. Curiously, towards the end of the story, Aschenbach metamorphisms into that which he hates, and becomes more leering and even has that session in the salon to make himself seem younger, and then doesn’t seem like an imposter himself. Interesting.

There is plenty of Freudian analysis of Aschenbach online and in books, which will be doubtless more absorbing that what I can say because I have no interest whatsoever in investing that sort of time into a story I find dull. But what is captivating is the notion that Aschenbach is a queer contemporary icon. Of course, throughout history literature has not been exactly kind to the LGBT community, so icons are taken as they come, but Aschenbach is a problematic choice. He may claim pederasty at the best of times but morally his actions are perverse and ought to be treated as such, not exalted because of his sexuality. And in some ways, it does seem like Aschenbach is not actually gay, but more is in love with the concept of divine beauty, in whatever form that may be. Tadzio just happened to be extremely beautiful, and so Aschenbach craved the look and the form of Tadzio more than his personality or character, just like a sculptor admires a figure for the shape and dimensions as opposed to any emotional attributes. In many ways Tadzio could easily have been female, without any qualms to the plot, and then the plot would be relatively unchanged, but leave the world with one less icon.

 

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East of Eden – John Steinbeck

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So take a left at the T junction, go straight past Eden and then take the third exit at the roundabout. Then you’re East of Eden.

Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.

At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.

The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.

Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.

The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.

All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

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A clear favourite amongst the Ayemenem locals

Roy’s breakthrough debut novel is more like poetry than literature; in the sense that most of it doesn’t make sense.

I have discovered from years of scouring award winning poems that a lot of their  imagery is not coherent in any way and yet somehow manages to capture the imagination of the judges. Roy’s novel should have won the attention of the public and the Man Booker committee, not because of imagery (of which there is a copious amount and so I dwell upon it), but in spite of it.

I can understand that the novel was singularly exceptional in the way that the caste system was handled, with the underlying political tension creating another area of conflict, as well as the looming fate of the infamous pickle factory, however I cannot understand the language used by Roy most of the time. As in: I cannot understand what she is trying to say. This is problematic, particularly because lots of phrases become epithets to characters or circumstances, so some level of coherency would be useful.

Here is a random example:

‘He folded his fear into a perfect rose. He held it out in the palm of his hand. She took it from him and put it in her hair

This sounds wonderful and indeed poetic, but it is rather nonsensical. So fear is the rose, right? So Rahel takes Velutha’s fear and makes it add to her beauty/ shows it off? Of course, as any self respecting literature scholar will know, you can always adjust the meaning of phrases, because no one has the ‘definitive’ meaning so if you shout loud enough then your opinion of a piece of imagery could be deemed somewhat plausible. So someone might say that Velutha makes himself vulnerable and turns his fears into a thing of beauty, because he is a powerful character who can create perfection from his own fallibility and in doing so Rahel respects his weaknesses and turns into something which complements her one of her own strengths, her beauty. You could say that. But we all know that that interpretation is rather whimsical and far-fetched, and yet many people would justify the relevance of this quote (and many others equally ridiculous) by saying that this was the true meaning.

Another example is:

blood spilt from the man’s head ‘like a secret’

Let’s break this down: a secret is a piece of information which must be concealed from individuals or groups for the threat of causing conflict. Blood cannot come from someone’s head like something which shouldn’t be discussed. The movement of blood isn’t like something that should be concealed, especially when one considers how much blood does actually appear from a head injury as this character as sustained, and how this actually is useful as it signals injury and therefore brings help. No one wants a severe injury to be hidden for fear of causing problems when they could be receiving medical tension and their life is at risk. Call me pedantic, but these examples (and I can list many more), prove that much of Arunhati’s imagery is at best parnassian and at worst unintelligible. I adore well-written books, just not when the language it pretentious and self-indulgent.

So why isn’t this terrible flaw pointed out more often?

Many people will go to the depths of the universe to defend Roy because they can relate to other parts of the plot and so want to defend the ENTIRE novel, instead of admitting there’s a few faults, to justify that they don’t like books with flaws. This aggravatingly works in their favour because literature is always ‘open to debate’, if you are willing to concede that ‘debate’ includes twisting things out of proportion and context to prove a point. In another instance people can simply skim past words and not step back and internalise them, and so although things may sound pleasant on the tip of their tongue, they may never truly think why Roy makes these bizarre comparisons. Worst of all, it may be because people honestly believe that they aren’t intelligent enough to understand the references, even when it’s a vague and poor reference that they’re dealing with, and so the problem is with the language and not their intellect.

The book does however has beautifully and vividly crafted characters, however it did take me almost the entirety of the plot to suddenly be able to differentiate them as they were introduced rather haphazardly all at once. It seems apparent that the plot in question only really starts to develop and come into its own in the latter stages of The God, mainly because the rest of the novel is so utterly character driven. This naturally places Roy’s piece in the ‘literature’ section of the Types Of Books scale, but it did seem a bit indulgent at times even for literature. For example, an author can go on and on with elaborately described scenes where characters are just brushing their teeth, but then it seems to be more for the author’s enjoyment then for the reader’s benefit, and as the book is being sold, it really ought to be more reader in mind than the writer.

Also, the incest part at the end? This was entirely unnecessary to the plot and quite abhorrent. Some argue that it’s to evoke a reaction that would be parallel to the Velutha/ Ammu relationship, so that Western reactions to the twins’ incest could be a template for Untouchable/ Touchable relationship, as there is no caste system as such in the West and so it may be hard to imagine what feelings would have been created by the news of the two together. But in all seriousness, the caste system is cruel and names people’s worth before they are even born, based on the social standing of their family, not on the individuals’ potential, and so people are born into a lottery of sorts. Incest, on the other hand, not only destroys the boundaries that one assumes exists between family members and siblings, where the love is meant to be platonic and caring at to the highest degree, but also violates the idea of preventing cross-breeding. There is a real reason to be concerned by this as opposed to the Untouchable/ Touchable relationship, and not just because of it is at odds with Western culture, but with all cultures and even morales.

So The God of Small Things was generally an adequate read; the flash backs and glimpses into the future also tended to add to some of the confusion, but once the plot is firmly sorted in one’s head I suppose reading the novel the next time will be a more enjoyable and clearer experience. If you can get past the opaque language, that is.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Some books are a joy; a mere afternoon of reading and in a flash the paperback has been read. This is not one of these novels. At 460 pages with miniscule font, I can hardly say that there was much ebullience ignited by this classic.

True: there were complex (and contemporarily speaking) risqué issues handled. It is unsurprising that in a harsh and patriarchal 19th Century society that Hardy’s piece caused quite a stir amongst those lucky enough to be able to read.

I did get a sense from the novel that it was far too long, simply because half the content was unuseful. Tess D’urberville is defintely a book that can be skimmed through, as the pace is slower than a hungover sloth, so if you’re reading and miss a line, any overlooked information will be repeated at least three times before it is somewhat relevant.

The climax of the novel is in the last twenty or so pages (Hardy, you kept me waiting a long time!) and even then it was so awkward that it can be hard to give it merit. It seems out of character for Tess to stab Alec, even if he did anger her greatly. Hardy always presented Tess as a maternal figure, caring not only for her siblings but for Sorrow too. She was mainly meek and obeyed orders, being careful to avoid (where controllable) shame upon her family.

For Tess to murder another man seems contradictory on two accounts: although this was an impulsive act, Tess is firstly rarely impulsive herself (she didn’t marry Angel straight away, and deliberated about telling him her secret, as well as hiding from Angel’s brothers instead of suddenly facing them), so the murder- as it wasn’t premeditated- is unusual. Then Tess must have known she’d be caught, meaning death and therefore one less source of income for her poverty stricken family. Seeing as Liza-Lu was held with the utmost respect by Tess, so much so that Tess suggested her marriage, it seems unlikely that Tess was seeking ‘revenge’ on her family by depriving them of her presence/income.

As for the effect on Angel; Tess knew that she was already outcast by Angel, but still hoped with relentless optimism for his forgiveness. Morales dictate that murder is a gruesome crime, so it is strange that Tess should murder Alec and still hope to be liked that Angel. How could she expect this death to be forgiven, particularly when after the stabbing she purposefully seeks out Angel to tell him. Of course, contemporarily the death of the father allowed the widow to move onto another man, although cold murder does seem to be drastic as it limits the longevity of her relationship with Angel, if it was going to happen at all. Didn’t it occur to Tess that he may be repulsed by her brutishness, even if it was to cut off this societal tie?

The language was more like a desert than flowery, although there were a few buds here and there to brighten up the barren language. There were some interesting motifs and symbols, too: the mention of birds frequently throughout the novel were a thought provoking motif of the freedom of characters. The strong theme of freedom and freewill tie strongly into birds; as the Mrs D’Urberville’s finches could fly around the room, they were free. But the mess they created had to be cleaned up by Tess, so the freedom of one creates hardship for the other. This of course is somewhat ironic as nothing but difficulty stems from Tess’ work there, particularly because Alec’s feeling of entitlement to Tess’ body and the consequences of these interactions ultimately leads to Tess suffering throughout the rest of her life.

Many would even say that the peasants that Tess encounters on a particular walk are a metaphor for herself, because although pheasants (and all birds) are synonymous with beauty, grace and freedom, these pheasants can never fly again due to violence, condemned to suffering for as long as their lives may last.

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A rather more cheerful looking pheasant 

Thus Tess is sentenced to a life as an outcast after her encounter with Alec and then Sorrow, and her wings are clipped as she suffers everyday as she cannot truly be with Angel.

Another interesting motif to touch upon is that of the Bible and the story of Adam and Eve. Even though Adam and Eve are directly mentioned in some imagery by Hardy, the comparisons run much deeper than that. Tess is Eve whilst the serpent is Alec, because whilst he doesn’t necessarily tempt her, he takes her to the realms which society cannot forgive, just like God could not forgive Eve for taking the apple, even if the serpent led her there, like Alec led Tess to her downfall. The guilt imposed upon Tess after Alec’s seduction (which was under a tree like in the Book of Genesis) never leaves Tess throughout the novel (although maybe it does after his murder at the end…). Either way, this guilt can be drawn back to the original sin which all of the human race now have within them, and are what caused Adam and Eve to be exiled from Eden, just like how Tess and her family were exiled from their home.

Lastly is the symbol of Prince and inherent suffering. Prince is of course a name with a royal link, just like the D’Urberville name is, and yet Prince toils away his entire life with no pampering or luxury, just like Tess’ family continue to suffer even though they have royal heritage. The death of Prince is unusual, because of the piece of metal driven into him, which is reminiscent of a wound sustained by jousting, which is a sport that only the highest in society could partake in. As Prince dies because Tess fell asleep, dreaming about knights and royalty, it suggests that dreaming and hoping for a better life ultimately leads to loss and suffering. Prince was the ultimate resource for her family, and now gone, the Durbeyfields must live in deeper poverty once more thanks to Tess’ fantasising, even if it was subconsciously. This links into the overarching theme of inherent suffering. Tess didn’t intend for any relationship with Alec, and yet it was imposed upon her, whilst she never meant for Prince to die. Yet these events, entirely out of her control, govern her livelihood and happiness, and so Hardy emphasises that the state of our existence is completely at odds with the notion of self-determination.

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Nike’s JUST DO IT campaign suggests that circumstances are entirely irrelevant to achieving any goals

This theme is the most engaging in a modern context, more so perhaps that the commentary of a patriarchal society or the mobility throughout social class, because luckily it seems that in the centuries since publication the ability to change social class is much easier, and only recently has an idea of the strength of the patriarchy and the need to deconstruct been discussed. But the concept of self-determination is often left astray, because of millennial parenting techniques and corporations. The idea that ‘because you want it, you can have it’ is incredibly damaging long term (watch Simon Sinek’s excellent talk on this here), whilst companies cash in on this idea. Think of Nike’s JUST DO IT and of all the millions of self-help books written that sell out even though they’re written by people with no education on the subject. This idea of meritocracy at all costs is dangerous, as proven by Hardy, and needs to be looked at through a larger lens more as we progress.

 

 

Alderman’s style is The Power to success

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The reason why The Power by Naomi Alderman is such an influential book in the media right now is because of the excitement is has generated, mainly in women. This is because books of this nature have never been written before, and if they have been written then it hasn’t been written with such skill and have been confined to the whimsical areas of Young Adult fiction. Admittedly there might be a seed of an original idea somewhere within the text, but it’s overpowered with dramatic yet uneventful scenes of badly written romance.

The interesting thing about the success of The Power is that it is almost an oxymoronic parallel to The Handmaiden’s Tale, that obviously has recently been in the mainstream media’s attention with the new TV series that just come out and all the press and interviews which  following that release. It strikes me though, that these narratives are capturing people’s attention at the same time because they are the inverse of each other and yet are starting very similar conversations.

Clearly one of attractions of The Power for many readers is the idea that they can induce lightening. It’s exciting in the same way that when you read Harry Potter you first adore it, and then hope that you will receive a letter announcing your place there. Unlike the Harry Potter series though, it’s the feeling that anyone, of any age, has the potential to ignite the Power within themselves, whereas with the Potter saga once you’re past having an 11 year old’s mentality, your hopes of becoming a wizard fade too. Also, it’s the near-plausibility of something like the awaking of the lightening within you which creates an even more vivid story. One doesn’t have to have a particularly active imagination to see something like this feasibly taking place with genetic modification being so visit pervasive in our lives: only one yield of crops could go ‘wrong’ and a whole chain of mass DNA altering could be set off. Yes, it’s never been proven before in biology, but that’s because humans are changing things globally at such a phenomenal rate that there isn’t time to stop and do long-term effects research. All this comes into effect as sowing the idea into people, giving them hope that maybe they have something like a skein inside them, that can be awoken in 5, 10, 25 years and change the status quo forever.

The Power offers an unusual approach to crime. Firstly, in most books a murder, burglary, or act of fraud will act as the centre piece of the book. The book might even be a murder mystery or called “The Grand Heist of George Ned” or something like that. Here, crime actually serves as a catalyst in the plot, instead of as a show-piece, which is strange and yet refreshing. Allie kills her adoptive father early on in the book: the rest of the novel isn’t about her internal demons (although perhaps that might’ve been interesting and accurate to feature, as killing someone would have a psychological effect on you even if you did despise them). Instead of dwelling for chapters on the murder, it’s treated as a necessary event but not a predominant one. Most writers feel like a mugging in their novel needs a thesis from each of characters about it before they can move on, which means that crime is rarely used as an effective tool in literature (except in detective/ mafia style stories) and that is why The Power is so interesting.

One of the crucial literary-based things Alderman has done is that she has made the characters – if not relatable – then at least understandable and has given us a way for the reader to be sympathetic with them. The scene where Roxy kills a man in his pool, in normal society, would be seen as horrific and shocking. But the reader can understand why Roxy feels like she needs to kill the man, and many wouldn’t feel like his death was inappropriate or uncalled for, whereas in a real-life context no-one would necessarily condone that same murder. (Don’t write in a say that readers feel sympathetic to Roxy because they know it’s not a real life situation. Obviously, they subconsciously know this, but if your heart has ever raced whilst reading a book, then you should know words can trick you into thinking they’re reality.) An example of this is that you don’t view Allie or Roxy as murderers. You don’t think to yourself as Roxy speaks, you are a serial-killer, because even though it’s accurate, that language is reserved for people in society who are portrayed as violent, distasteful and unlawful. All very interesting stuff.

As for the characters, Alderman employed the classic multiple point of view. It was used skilfully, and one could notice the various speaking styles the characters had, without it appearing too overbearing or obvious. Often writers read in books or on blog-posts that you need to have clear voices that distinguish each character, and whilst this is true, the result is often unnatural with each character speaking in wildly different stereotypical dialects. In this respect -given that many before her have tried and failed with multiple POVs- she strikes a great balance between differentiating the characters and having read the prose seem natural and not like it fabricated from behind a desk or a computer screen.

One of the essential components of this book was seeing the characters, particularly Roxy and Ali, grow up. All bestselling books or series will tend to share this component of age within their work because, for the most part, the readers will tend to be of an older age and it’s a classic tool which creates more engagement. This engagement is created when the reader, even if they’re not a criminal, sees Allie turning up at the convent with no friends. They remember their first experiences at school. Or when they get into a fight with their parents, or there’s trouble going on at home, and this doesn’t have to be as dramatic as having your own brother rip an organ from you but that sense of betrayal and disappointment can be the same. Yet as the characters grow more mature they come across different situations- which they wouldn’t if The Power was set when they were in their 20s across a 3-day-peroid. You wouldn’t be able to witness the creation of the NorthStar camps, the riots in the Middle East and the creation of Bessapara. Roxy wouldn’t be able to be both the clueless yet eager teenager and the dominating dealer that she was. Yet all these moments evoke priceless emotion in the reader, so not only are they able to relate to them in some way to each part of their lives, but they’re able to see the characters mature and develop to enrich the narrative.

In books giving advice about writing, they often say that the readers want more than anything to see development in a character. In the Hunger Games, seeing Katniss go from a selfish, hard girl to a steely and emotionless to a romantic and sly one is fascinating. Yet in real life this is hardly the case. When people tell you in high school that the bullies are jealous and will grow out of throwing food at you and spreading rumours, it’s true that whilst the methods will evolve, the motivation will remain the same. Whilst ordinarily this character transformation is implausible, the way Alderman artfully went from each time-frame meant that each quirk of each character could be exposed, and that a believable and subtle change over time could be seen.

Now for the characters themselves; there was diversity within the characters, which is important to me but not necessarily for all the reasons in which diversity is important for most people. So often in modern literature you do find this eagerness to over-compensate for the lack of diversity in the past, and I have spoken about this topic at length in my other posts. To this extent, I find that The Power has the perfect balance. The character Tunde is one of these, as he does add new perspective, being male, which is crucial for multiple reasons. It’s important because although it’s a female-centric novel, the impact of The Power is on everyone, so to be able to explore how a man feels not only adds variety but is vital to give the reader the full experience of the revolution that the world is going through.

I recently went to a screening of Journey’s End and I asked the producer afterwards if they were worried about what people would say about the lack of diversity in the film. I have studied WW1 to a great extent and I understand the context that the film has, but many people won’t, and it could potentially cause some backlash because in society at the moment people feel so passionately about this topic. He replied that the board had considered including multiple ethnicities, but ultimately felt like it wouldn’t be true to reality. This is a line that I completely support, because I was genuinely curious and (unlike my friends’ firm beliefs) didn’t ask simply to make the producer feel uncomfortable.

To that extent, I’m glad that Alderman wasn’t trying to address all the problems in society in her novel. She focused very clearly on the female role within modern society, allowing that theme to take precedence instead of including lots of random characters and rogue traits which you often feel like are only included in books so that they can win some obscure prize based on the issue on the character has. The Power is  revolutionary because it asks what if women did have more power, what if the tables had turned and they represented more than angry feminists and people who couldn’t vote just over 100 years ago. Alderman’s not trying on top of that to address alcoholic parents, abusive relationships and mental disorders.

This book should be on a pedestal for all others for the fact alone that Alderman took one problem, turned it on it’s head, and made a best seller. You don’t have to include the entire LGBT+ community and organic vegetables to create a conversation.

Overall, though, the success of The Power is cannot be attributed to the great writing, the vivid use of crime, the development of characters nor the sustained focus on the original problem if one does not consider the timing. Now clearly this book has been in the making for years; yet the timing of its release could not have been better planned. Why? With the recent Hollywood scandals and the whole #metoo campaign, the conversation about women in society has been generated again and this means that The Power is going to be read by people who have this topic already on their mind by simply scrolling through their tweeter feed, meaning that they’re much more likely to be perceptive to the ideas that Alderman is grappling.

 

Thwaites undergoats an udderly ridiculous joureny

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Goat and follow your dreams; if a man can become a goat, then you can definitely become a popstar

The concept behind GoatMan is ingenious. It sounds like an invention only someone desperate, determined and open-minded would do. Which is Thomas Thwaites in a nutshell, or should I say, goat’s cheese wheel.

Stumbling along in life, with no job and acting as a unwilling trustafarian, Thwaites decided to turn his life around. Somehow, he thought that becoming an elephant walking across the Alps was the way to do it, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. Which does still sound decidedly trustafarian-like all things considered, but at least the author wasn’t dog-sitting anymore.

Having trekked to Copenhagen and given some shamanic guidance in a hut, Thwaites realised he should’ve been a goat all along. It would’ve got my goat to say the least if I was part-way through an elephant design project and changed animal, but Thwaites didn’t seem to mind. Throughout the book we are guided through his process of realising his goal: visits to goat farms, creators of prosthetics, animal dissections (ft. snow leopard and an alpaca with practically tuberculosis) and a psychologist all feature. It’s exciting stuff.

Winning the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for the project, as seen in the book GoatMan by Thomas Thwaites, this goes far deeper than merely thinking ‘goat-like’ thoughts. Impressively, Thwaites commits to the project with a level of dedication seldom seen elsewhere, and the documentation of this is displayed aesthetically, which appears to be the designer of Thwaites coming through, or in any doubt, a great publishing house. For every notable event, there is a technicolour image to boot, my favourite being (not the goat’s rumen spilling everywhere in graphic detail whilst I thought about my last meal, but in fact) Prof. Hutchinson’s freezer. It’s filled with hundreds of plastic bags with mysterious lumps and it’s all rather intriguing. Lumps being dead animals and intriguing meaning including giraffe necks and elephant feet. Check out his blog here: http://www.whatsinjohnsfreezer.com

As a concept it’s fantastic; sometimes it’s wonderful to do something just for the sake of it, not because it will ‘look good on my CV’. I hear this so often, with people wandering off on Duke of Edinburghs (it’s overrated- I ran out of food because my porridge pots broke and I woke up with frost on the inside of my tent), or attending up to 8 hours of extra curricular activities a week in the hope of impressing someone later in life in an application. Whilst pursing interests is important, I find that since the only incentive is to gain a place at an academic institution, it seems like a waste of time. Most people I know don’t even know what they want to do next weekend, let alone for their degree courses. Yet societal values have convinced us that the only path to success is: go to university, have a long working career- establishing yourself as upper middle class whilst you have a family, then retire. That’s the conventional measure of a happy lifestyle today, with the amount of wealth accumulated punctuating that achievement. But what if that isn’t true? There are so many assumptions in there, and now people automatically think they want going to university, but with no real incentive of their own except that that is what everybody else is.

So this book appeals because it is a rebellion of that. Sure, Thwaites did it to drag himself out of a pool of unemployment, but he could have worked as a waiter to do that. He didn’t know that he was going to win the Ig Prize for the Project. He received (and still does probably) uncertain comments from people around him surrounding it, but he preserved because that’s what he wanted to do. To live a simpler life is a noble aim, I suppose. It’s difficult to let go of everything, of contacts, the internet, unnecessary material objects. There’s an underlying fear of making that decision and getting so far behind with the world that if you don’t hurry, it’ll be too late to return.

Yet to take the time out and simply read this project counteracts that. You’ll never put reading this on your CV, and you’ll be so enraptured that you won’t think of your phone. Think of reading this as a little rebellion, your own holiday from being a modern Homo sapiens.

Why did The Sellout sellout?

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Beatty is the first American author to have won the Man Booker prize

Today the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner will be announced. The award has a stiff atmosphere of prestige surrounding it, with a hefty £50,000 cheque for the winner. Yet the winner is only crowned because their work has pleased a small group of people, the Judges. If another group of people read the same few books, perhaps the winner would be different. So to check if this set of judges had good taste, I decided to read The Sellout for myself.

It’s a visceral novel. But before delving into that, it’s dotted with Americanisms and little witty quips that someone foreign to the culture would miss: being part of that cultural clique adds to the attraction of the book. Basic psychology, one could argue; the ‘in’ and ‘out group’ theory- relating here to understanding the pun, or not. Aside from that the subjects in it are incredibly intense. It’s about the reintroduction of segregation and slavery in modern-day L.A. A very fine line to tread, even when the characters hold entirely different views and are a separate entity to the author, because although the West might think themselves above both of these things- that they’re buried safely underneath the weight of history- the truth is far from it. There are an estimated 40.3 million people in slavery today across the world, including America and Britain. To start to toy with the idea with ownership if a human is a calculated risk, but the manner in which Beatty did so was considered enough to distinct itself from satire on that topic. Perhaps he deserves merit in his own right for handling that suitably enough. Maybe he thought was ‘on a roll’, or held a level of conceit for his skills (rightly so at any rate) but he decided to lump in segregation too. The segregation of the city, Dickens, of the protagonist. It’s a polarising topic, in my head at least. The topic of segregation was approached much more bluntly than slavery and it was intrinsic to the plot. I believe that in all honesty there would have been mortified and incensed reactions to Beatty’s work if he hadn’t have been black though. In Western culture particularly there has been a rising trend in the embracement of minorities, women and LBTQ+ (basically everyone bar privileged straight white men), with this book no doubt falling into this category. Whilst I wholesomely advocate this movement, still today in society there are copious amounts of racism, so approaching topics like this have to be done with care.

For the actual details of the book; it has a plot certainly, but is mainly made up of factors that appeal to the aesthetic more than literary rhetoric of any kind. Little twists in fate like Marpessa having the bus where Rosa Parks famously denied to move are in all honesty fascinating quirks, but don’t add substantial to weight to the storyline on their own. There are many other instances of this, such as the protagonist of the book having the last name “Me”, so that when he was in court it was “Me vs. The United States of America”. A fun, if somewhat extravagant touch, which is mainly how I sum up the novel as a whole. Things happen, of course, but I don’t feel like there’s something I can tangibly take away from the experience at the end. It’s not like you can close the covers saying to yourself, thank goodness he got the girl. There’s a resolution, certainly, but it’s not life changing, not pivotal to the sense of closure in the conventional manner.

In Western liberal democracies, there are often issues with renowned institutions, be it government (in general) or something as flippant as the Oscar Awards; creating cultural diversity without appearing to fall for tokenism is one of them. I admit that I have only read the Man Booker Prize Winner from last year, and none of the other competing titles, and yet bearing this eagerness to create a diverse playing field in mind, it does not surprise me that Paul Beatty’s piece had won. Because it is a book by a black author about a black protagonist talking about racism. Much in the same way that a few years ago the book Lies We Tell Ourselves (read my review of it here) got onto the Carneige Shortlist when frankly it was awful- the actual prose of that novel itself couldn’t have been strong enough to merit a place on it’s own- so it suggest other factors were influences too. Bearing in mind the large amount of children reading the Carneige Shortlist in shadowing groups, the exposure to a vetted book about mild racism and lesbians would have been an eye-opening experience for them. The judges have a far greater responsibility on their shoulders than simply choosing the best book; it’s worth remembering that when considering titles with awards. Now whilst I’m not suggesting that Beatty won on these grounds, it wouldn’t surprise me if these factors did work in his favour. As The Man Booker Prize is a prestigious award, of course the winner is going to be highly scrutinised, so it is going to have to be a high quality. Yet given the amount of exposure that each novel gets after being awarded, it seems that handing this American satire this opportunity to reach the masses would, as with Lies We Tell Ourselves, be a wise idea.

The subject and morality of racial quotas can be discussed in another post, but it’s clear that we’re not living in a post-racial, post-judgemental world. It seems obvious to me why The Sellout would hold such an attraction to the Man Booker judges; because it openly grapples with subjects that people are too afraid to articulate themselves for fear of being called a racist. Now noting someone’s skin colour, calling them a ‘white person’ or a ‘black person’, is unfortunately now synonymous with racial slurs because people have have been brought up today to be so considerate of others, to rectify the horrendous attitudes of the past, that no one knows where they stand. It’s like social media posts where people make racial jokes that ‘my (coloured) friend laughs at as well’ and then are grilled by the international community for their words. The appropriateness of the joke is beside the point; it’s the cautiousness that society is now trained to adopt which is the important factor. The Sellout isn’t cautious. It doesn’t care about social convention or pleasing the crowds- which is why it does hold that level of attraction. This year all the novels on the 2017 shortlist are experimental, and this one certainly is too.

So the Sellout. The Man Booker judges certainly picked an appropriate novel, but would I read it again? Probably. It seems like something which has to be read several times to be understood fully. Or maybe it doesn’t. I’ll just have to take the risk and find out.

Freakonomics- is it worth it?

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The unique interpretation of Economics here is perhaps far-fetched

Freakonomics. The despair of every Economics University admissions officer as they scan personal statements. At this point in time, who hasn’t read Freakonomics, and even if they had, would flaunting the fact their eyes have skimmed over 211 pages make a difference to their knowledge of interdependence in Oligopolistic Markets?

It, like the pocket-sized physics books which were all the nerdy rage last year, was part of a half-hearted trend to revive the intelligence of the nation. Perhaps publishers had had enough of talking about the weather over their tea break and thought, if only we could talk about something interesting, something like why drug dealers still live with their mothers, then life would be better. So let’s publish a book so people know about this and can then discuss it. Or maybe Steven D. Levitt was good enough at economics to know that:

Lots of books sold – (tax + publisher’s cut) = A FUN HOLIDAY

Or so it seems. So down to the content; there’s not much of it. There are only 6 different chapters, which were more like 3 broken in half, where the authors tried to pass the second half off (sometimes) as an entirely new subject. Which they weren’t. The issue was also that there was no unifying theme. There’s no satisfaction in covering lots of ground when you’re moving too fast to pick anything up. It’s a shame. Maybe Steven should have proof-read it.

Initially, it was gratifying, if slightly pointless, to see that there was a link between a sumo wrestler and a teacher, but I was left with one question. The authors repeatedly say that you have to look for the right question, then the rest will follow. I’m not sure about anybody else, but it seems that obviously when you have masses ‘data’ and know about separate ‘studies’, it’s articulating the link which is the only mildly tricky part. There was no research done into either profession in order to find the bridge between the two: Levitt simply had to scan a few pages from studies done on teacher and sumo wrestlers, find a tenuous loophole to sling the two together, then gleefully stuff the pages with irrelevant facts about nepotism in the University of Georgia.

It seems like although Freaknomics is the adult version of a ‘fun facts booklet’, there is nothing tangible that can be taken away from reading this. Nothing that you can flaunt to your friends except that somewhere in New York, a few decades ago, a father named his sons Winner and Loser Lane. But perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, it offers great insights into sectors of human thought that would never normally cross our minds, such as how humans more intensely fear things that they’re unfamiliar with: an easy example is jumping into a car vs. taking off on a plane. Yet that’s not much a revelation, is it?

It seems that at times the evidence, whilst sounding impressive with their acronyms, because the companies are too important to have their names squeezed into a single word, is flawed. Sometimes the evidence was too superficial- hardly reliable when trying to make grand posturing claims about contradicting prevailing wisdom, and at other times foolhardy. Scores of their ‘evidence’, once you trudge to the footnotes of the book, seem to be laughable or dubious at best. And is this really book really covering Economics, or merely palatable Sociology? The latter for sure, but given that these supposed ‘findings’ were so ‘obscure’ (i.e bound together by the most far farfetched pieces of data), it’s no surprise that instead of being crafted into a respectable journal, it’s been churned out as a commercial book.

I was at first steeling myself for this review; I had the general impression that people liked Freakonomics and thought of it as their intellectual lunchtime companion, but soon it became clear that elsewhere people were having the same thoughts as I did, and that I wouldn’t be the only personal trying to articulate my distaste.

My final word is that, despite the hype, I didn’t buy into it. So no; it’s not worth it.

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

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Even a battered, £2.50 book can fill me with delight. In the spare moments of my ‘very busy’ summer holiday, I found time to read Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca. Which is just as well, because ten years ago, skirt askew and blazer crumpled,  I was in a house at school called Du Maurier. We all got little green pin with a gold lined book and a pen engraved into the  enamel. Along with various other inspirational women whom the houses were named after, the name meant nothing more to me than that it signified the colour shirt I wore on Sports Day. Now, sufficiently literate, I have decided to finally pay attention to Du Maurier, and pick up one of her greatest pieces (although, admittedly, not enough to buy a copy at full price)!

There is the magnificent setting itself, Manderely House, where the protagonist a Mrs de Winter and Max de Winter live. Although it’s precise location is never revealed, in the author’s note I read that Du Maurier’s old home Mandabilly was the main inspiration. It’s a brooding place, full of complexities and has such an animate character that if the plot was set in a cottage, or some other half-hearted building, it would simply be an awful reading experience. Much like pathetic fallacy with the weather, it is seen with the house and that is what makes the novel so impactful. Also, the description reminds me rather a lot of somewhere I go often, Endsleigh House so the nostalgia and memories of that trip trickled perfectly into the narrative:

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The Endsleigh hotel, or Manderely? There’s even a dog and roses!

There is something so dark about the narrative, so wonderfully obscene about the twist of events that I cannot help but find myself, like a child drawn to the trigger of a gun, mesmerised by it. It’s an oddly comforting storyline, in all honesty; after all, it confirms humanity’s vulnerability, that no relationships can be idealised, except perhaps when you are judging other peoples’. That’s precisely what the second wife, Mrs de Winter, did. She was swept away by the façade, daunted by the expectations following Maxim’s previous marriage, that it choked her potential. It’s needless to say how to many teenagers can find this book liberating; think of Instagram accounts of the rich and famous as one huge Rebecca and Maxim marriage, except without the honesty and the murder trial. Agreed, that a minority of famous bloggers unveil the reality behind the laborious process and their undying emotional instability even though millions of people comment about how much they want to look like them, but it’s just that those that don’t, lead us to believe that the images are their true nature, therefore forcing our own standards higher.

So, the novel’s called Rebecca. But what is the name of our protagonist, the young school girl? It’s one of the best plot devices of all; how du-Maurier neglected to mention her name, left us hanging on a string of anticipation. In the end, though, we aren’t troubled by this absence, but are riddled with speculation, with the sheer curiosity of this. After perusing the internet, some thought that she was called Daphne, after all it was cited early in the book that Maxim said she had an unusual name, and many believe this story was written to reflect the author’s own experiences. Others think that du Maurier merely forgot. But if you’re composing such a masterpiece, sifting day upon day on material, now stale from being constantly looked scanned for improvements, then of course you simply wouldn’t have forgetten. It’s almost farcical to suggest such a notion. Personally, I believe that it’s a reflection of Mrs de Winter’s own shyness, own timidity that she couldn’t even draw that much attention to herself to speak up on the number of occasions where it could have been mentioned.

So, reader, give it a try. I had put off reading Rebecca long enough, unexcited by the drab premise, but I have to say it’s now officially my favourite book (yay! Finally something to say at dinner parties… well, not dinner parties, but you know what I mean). It has affected me so much I have even named one of my bonsai trees (I have a few) Maxim. Yes, the level of adoration is serious.

 

 

 

Structural Racism in Britain: a case study

Elected Officials Introduce The Fairness And Equity Act Aimed At Reducing Penalties For Minor Marijuana Offenses

Some people declare that we live in a post racial world. Many insist that they are colour blind, whilst others refuse to engage with the idea of quotas for ethnic minorities. Which is unfortunate.

British society today is actively involved in racism, but it’s more unconscious and wide-spreading that anybody could have anticipated. In my last post on the consequences of Brexit, I discussed the mindset of those who were involved in the hate crime shortly after the referendum. Here, however, I can reveal that there is a further-reaching biased agenda is at play, and the worst thing is; it’s (mainly) unconscious.

After reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race, shocking figures were unveiled. The media often portray racism to be seen in two categories: one where people are in full-out equality campaigns, posters and all, and one where others are openly spreading malicious messages online. Two opposites. But after reading this book, it turns out that in reality things are much more subtle than this; it’s not simply a black and white divide of personal choice, but something which through societal cues has seeped into our everyday life. From under-represenatation of BAME actors in the media to the dubious dealings of police (yes, even in Britain), these are the things which shift our everyday perception of the people around us. Don’t believe me? An excerpt from Eddo-Lodge’s book points out that “In 2009, a study by the Department for Work and Pensions found that applications for jobs to a number of prospective employers were not treated equally: applicants with white-sounding names were called to interview far more often than those with African- or Asian-sounding names.” Uncanny, yes, but is it that really that unsurprising? The book is filled with many other statistical and even anecdotal examples, from discussing the Bristol bus boycott to the role feminism has to play in levelling out the playing field, all of which are used to illustrate the point that structural racism exists today.

The reason why this book is so impactful is because often people think that structural racism doesn’t affect them, that is belongs to angry magazine articles and indignant interviewees. Not quite; although America is rife with unpleasant events surrounding discrimination, with alternative figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. being held up history class, we need to look no further than our own country for information. Then there are other factors such as white privilege, which is an interesting example. Eddo-Lodge points out that if you don’t know what it means, it means it’s probably in your favour. This relates more to subconscious relativity than anything else: in an interview, if you share something in common with the interviewer, they’ll assume that when you make a mistake it’s because of nerves, not incompetence. If you are a different race or gender to the interviewer, it’s far more likely that a negative assumption is placed upon you, which could be as drastic as to have the consequence of increasing your period of unemployment.

This is an enlightening read because it reveals how the nature of Britain’s society is interwoven with biases, with countless examples from not only history but modern-day to prove this. This is instrumental in pointing out existing structural flaws which many might not concede exist. However it seems to me that the type of people who will be reading a book entitled something as seemingly abrupt as “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, probably aren’t the people who need to see this the most. But why is the title so unpalatable to many? The simple fact is that people with pale skin are unused to being called ‘white’; they have entitled themselves to so much pride and individualism, that to be pigeon-holed into a demographic almost appears to be rude. After all, the term is only accurate and it’s been illustrated consistently that pointing out other ethnicities’ skin colour is acceptable. (I won’t get started on the hypocrisy of the title, because that would take too long, although it seems that since publishing the book Eddo-Lodge has mainly been giving talks to white people about it… I don’t know, maybe it’s ironic.)

That is not to say that Eddo-Lodge’s book can sail past without any criticism though. Sadly not: firstly I would say that there is a lot of indication of the problems at hand; after all, if we are to discuss how to target a problem, we must not only identify the problem first, but get people to acknowledge the issue’s existence. Fine. Around 220 pages of this endless finger-pointing later, we have about 2 paragraphs of what can be done in the future. So, after lengthy discussions of structural rascism, what does the author thinks is the main way to solve this heart-felt problem? Talking. As simple as that.

Now, that might be useful for spreading the word amongst friends, but realistically this can’t be implemented to a life-changing effect on an international scale, which presumably is the result she wants. Talking, whilst powerful amongst small social circles (we all know what a rumour can do), or even, taking this example at it’s best, flitting past the newspaper headlines, is not going to change people’s innate societal biases which Eddo-Lodge has so expertly referred to earlier on. There are such sweeping statements such as: ‘The mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people.” Yes, I understand now. Excuse me, I thought the issue of structural racism could be solved by walruses. It seems a bit poor to devote such a pitiful few sentences to a solution, because what use is highlighting a problem when you don’t as equally highlight the way the tackle it. If Eddo-Lodge had been a bit more specific in a mechanism for implementing this societal change, I would be satisfied, understand how we can all move forward because I know that vast swarms of people who are currently reading this book will sincerely want to help. Some may have massive platforms, other funds, and if they knew where to channel that maybe some work could be done. However, most people aren’t like Eddo-Lodge, and will only remember the injustice the book made them feel, not the facts or insights. Many won’t want to, out of a fear of public speaking, not the topic, speak to a large crowd about what they’ve learnt. If the reader is captive in the text, so to speak, at least they could have been offered alternative ways of spreading the word, such as specific organisations or campaigns. I’m not writing these things out of anger, but because we as writers have a limited chance to make an impact on an audience, but I wanted to see Eddo-Lodge use that literary platform so that it had the most influential outcome. It was borne out frustration at the missed opportunity more than anything else.

Also some of Eddo-Lodge’s comments made me prickle. For example, she writes in the section entitled ‘The Feminism Question’ that feminism “must demand pay for full-time mothers and free childcare for working mothers.” As somebody heavily involved in economic affairs and moral values in modern society, believe me when I say I have spent hours debating this topic. You cannot simply mention something as complex as the subject as the financial struggles of mothers in a single sentence then fling yourself off onto another world problem. Each of these issues, such as “Feminism must demand affordable, decent, secure housing” seems to be shoved into the text as the author attempts to find ways through an ideology to solve every global issue. These are problems which demand the respect of being fully explained, that each require countless books of their own to be fully comprehended and palming them off for feminists to fight for as well as gender equality seems groundless. Then there were mystifying phrases such as “I have no desire to be equal” and “It’s clear that equality doesn’t quite cut it.” This is fine for a personal preference I suppose, but the latter sentence doesn’t sit right with me. I understand what the author means when she says that the “onus is not on me to change. Instead, it’s the world around me.” but that doesn’t mean that she can just cast off equality as some dirty word. What more should anyone in society want than equality? What else is there to strive for?

Having said these things, it is generally a superbly written and eloquent read that is essential for those interested in economics, current affairs and psychology. Or everyday life really, but there were flaws nonetheless, which I think many critics have ignored due the heavily moral aspect of the book, so they feel if they attack a part of the book, they are in some way defending structural racism, which obviously is a false claim. Sincerely though, it was a relevant and pertinent piece.