Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Book Review – “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Having fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert after reading Eat, Pray, Love (as I imagine many of her fans have), I was really looking forward to reading Big Magic. There’s something about the conversational tone that she seems to always adopt in her books that really creates a sense of closeness between you as a reader and Gilbert herself. It feels like the two of you are engaged in a private conversation. Big Magic is the same.

The thing is, though, I’m not one for motivational/inspiring/guiding books. They put me on edge. They seem to point out one way to do things, and if I’m not already planning on doing them in the same manner, they create a sense of failure. Self-help books such as Big Magic never really seem to do the trick for me, so I proceeded with caution.

Big Magic has a very promising start.

The book opens with a section about fear and the way it holds you back, eventually getting to the idea that only courage will allow you to be more creative. It’s not anything ground-breaking, but I consider it a very good opening to a self-help book; we can never be reminded too often to try and let go of our fears. Gilbert accompanies this motivational message with a personal example, something which she consistently does throughout the book. In this case, she talks about her friend who, after years of not practicing, decides to pick up figure ice skating again. While talking about this, Gilbert stresses both the simplicity of the action – her friend didn’t aim to get competitive again, nor did she completely change her lifestyle to accommodate this new pursuit, she simply enjoyed the sport and wanted to practice it – while also emphasising the impact this creative pursuit had on her friend – it brought her a lot of joy, which she did not get from other activities in her life.

Now, with the reader all fired up, wanting to gain the same pleasure from their own brave, creative pursuits, Gilbert does a U-turn. She talks about creativity as something bigger than us, mentioning the “external daemon of creativity”, which the ancient Greeks and Romans believed lived in your walls and helped you with your work – the message being, you are not a genius, you have a genius. She also talks about ideas floating around, searching for a human that will put them into practice.  While I have a hard time getting behind her former belief in a creative genius, I do like the latter. It encourages you to hold on to the moments of inspiration you experience, and try to turn them into something solid as soon as you get the chance, otherwise they might float away. I have heard a similar idea from a Creative Writing teacher of mine – she told her students that if we don’t turn our ideas into a story, if we let them hang in the air, someone else will think of those same ideas and they will use them instead. So if you have a great idea, don’t let it go. Gilbert states that “Done is better than perfect.”

There are a lot of great lessons to take away from Big Magic.

The most important one, that runs across the whole book, is to cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism holds you back. It’s something that I have had to come to terms with as well – we all want to make sure that everything we do is perfect, so that we won’t get badly judged by others. However, most of the time, it turns out that the person judging you the harshest is yourself. This usually applies the most in the case of anything creative, and Big Magic really brought home the relief that it’s fine for creative work to have rough edges. Gilbert stresses the importance of keeping at it, working daily at your craft, and letting your inspiration and creativity do its thing. Persistence brings about the idea of learning to stop procrastinating, since there will never be a perfect time for putting your ideas into action – Gilbert insists that you have to make the time for your creative pursuit.

She also reassures us that we do not have to worry about having a “big idea” as soon as possible, to put it into motion as quickly as can be. We can take our time. It’s important to continue being actively creative and curious. Gilbert uses an example from her own life, telling us how a simple desire to have a garden turned into a new novel – as her interest in flowers grew, and she did more research about them, the idea for a new story appeared, and turned into her new novel. You never know when inspiration may hit you.

I absolutely appreciate that Gilbert talks down the “suffering artist” myth. I personally haven’t seen it done before, and I feel like people really need to understand that creativity does not need to come from pain and suffering, and romanticising the negative things in your life does not mean you are making art, nor does it necessarily help you in healing/overcoming them.

HOWEVER

There is something which really, really irritated me. At one point in Big Magic, Gilbert says you don’t have to quit your job to write, or be creative. It will do your craft no good to put the pressure of making it pay the bills on it. She points out that it can be reassuring to know you are being creative only for the sake of it, for yourself. This, however, does not mean that you are not allowed to dedicate all your time to your creativity. Talking about this, Gilbert gives herself as an example, telling us how she kept her day job for years, never wanting to let the responsibility of having to make her writing pay the bills tamper with her creativity. That’s all good, but she adopts a tone that I feel is different to the one she used until this point. She becomes preachy.

She continues the next section by saying how you shouldn’t pursue a degree in the arts to be creative. She is very against creative related higher education, painting a very false, very negative picture of it, saying it only results in debt while having no benefits. As an English Literature student, and someone who has loved all the Creative Writing courses and workshops I have attended in my lifetime, this almost made me give up on the book. (I never stop hallway through books, but this infuriated me so much I did consider it).  Pursuing higher education in the arts is a very rewarding experience that feeds into everything you do – and it will make a very noticeable difference. You become exposed to so many different styles of art (writing, literature, painting, drawing, sculpting…you name it) that will then allow you to figure out your personal taste and style. Sure, you don’t need a degree in the arts to be creative – curiosity, passion and perseverance are all you need to succeed in your pursuit, but it doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. And, first of all, a degree paves the way for your future, so if you want to study the arts and work in that domain after you graduate, go ahead. I salute you, I am doing the same.

Yes, this bit made me really mad. It does not take away from all the good bits, however. I just needed to step away from the book for a while, and accept that opinions differ from one person to another. The book can be a very easy read. It’s not split into long chapters, but rather into sections, which are further spilt into subsections. It makes it really easy to stop reading at any point during the book, and continue later on. Moreover, Gilbert’s writing style is very conversational – easy going and comforting. This makes all the important messages in the book stand out. They are very complex, yet told to you with such ease, it’s really easy to take it. And it’s all very motivational, without seeming to be trying too hard.

 

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20 lessons “Harry Potter” has taught me

20 lessons “Harry Potter” has taught me

Harry Potter has recently celebrated 20 years since it first made our lives more magical. I wasn’t born then, but that’s even better for me, because the world was already in love with “The Boy Who Lived” by the time I came about, a year later. And boy, has my life been better because of him. Here’s 20 things that I have learnt from these life-changing books.

1.It’s important to say things properly.

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Ron might have thought Hermione was being an insufferable know-it-all when she corrected him in Potions, but then again, he never ended up like Harry, who arrived in Knockturn Alley rather than Diagon Alley because he failed to say it properly when using Floo powder. So, Hermione was right all along (but then, she does have a tendency to be, doesn’t she?). Pronouncing/Saying things properly doesn’t only matter in academic situations, though. Not only can it stop you from making a fool of yourself (“your vs you’re” piss anyone else off?) but it can actually help you make some friends – people appreciate it when you pronounce (and write) their name correctly (trust me, I would know).

2. Never judge a book by its cover.

No, I won’t use Snape for this example. While he did have a redeeming moment towards the end of the series, his behaviour towards his students was always atrocious, therefore the “cruel teacher” impression that he gives off from the start is correct. I will, however, use Hagrid. My first impression of him didn’t last long, but I was pretty terrified of his character the first time I encountered him in the books. Having a giant knock down your door is pretty scary. However, Hagrid soon turned into one of my favourite characters. He has such a big, loving heart, and a soft soul – how could you not love him? I have been proven wrong about first impression numerous times in my life, similarly to the way I was proven wrong about Hagrid. There’s more to a person than meets the eye, we always have to give them a chance to show us who they really are before we judge them.

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3. There are many shades of courage.

I had a big crisis when as I progressed through the first book. I loved the trio so much, but the bravery that gets you into Gryffindor just wasn’t something that I could identify with. It made me really sad, and for a while it felt inadequate for me to share the brave adventures of these characters. But as I read on through the series, I was shown that bravery was not just fighting Voldemort. Neville standing up to his friends (who does, coincidentally, end up fighting Voldemort, too) was the first glimpse of that. However, the most significant form of bravery for me was Ron joining Harry in following the spiders.

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I have a phobia when it comes to insects, so Ron’s reluctance was very relatable. However, the fact that he still went with Harry, despite his discomfort, was what impressed me and then stuck with me. And even Hermione, whom I loved right from the moment she asked about Neville’s toad on the train, showed her bravery in a similar. We all know this famous scene:

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Hermione never went against the rules in the beginning, yet by the end of Philosopher’s Stone, she did just that, to help her friends. There’s a quote that I love, which always reminds me of the different ways people can be brave: “When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave”.

4. We make our own choices.

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Neil Gaiman’s quote brings me nicely to this “lesson”. Dumbledore’s wise words about choices defining who we are baffled me for a long time (I was young, guys, the only choices I had to make at that time were if I should read one more chapter or go to bed). As I’ve grown older however, I have realised (and also seen) how the decisions you make in life are what defines your character, rather than your talents or your mere words. It’s your actions that speak for you, not what you say. So, like the idea behind Gaiman’s quote, that choosing to be brave is what makes you brave, rather than saying you are brave/ being in Gryffindor, it’s what you do that builds your character. (I can only call myself a blogger as long as I blog – I used to call myself one a few years ago when I had given up on my previous blog, but even I knew it wasn’t true). And your actions can only be decided by you (which is why they build character; you get me). Therefore, we always have a choice in life (and oh boy, life is filled with choices, from pretty insignificant to life changing).

5. There is always hope.

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I was really close to getting Dumbledore’s famous quote painted on my wall (time to gasp at the originality). I used to be really optimistic as a child, and never thought things could go too badly, whatever the situation. As I’ve grown older, that optimism has started to fade, but more often than not, a bad situation will have a positive outcome and a glimmer of that lost optimism would come back. It’s pretty easy to get so worked up and overwhelmed by the negative things that are going on in our lives, that we forget things have a way of working out. Even when everyone though all was lost after Harry “died”, that wasn’t really the case. An even better example is Harry’s unwavering belief in Dumbledore and his own purpose in Deathly Hallows. I now want that quote on my wall more than ever before, for all the times it has perfectly applied to my life. Thanks Dumbledore.

6. Things have a way of working out.

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I feel like the whole series is an example of this, from things like Harry burning Professor Quill’s face with his hands, to him being able to save Fleur’s sister in the Triwizard tournament, to the trio’s escape on the back of a dragon from Gringotts. And honestly, if even being dead worked out for Harry in the end, surely whatever we’re stressing about is bound to end up better than we’re fearing.

7. We can get over fear.

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And there’s a bigger catch to this – sometimes we must get over it. Fear only holds us back – it keeps us from saying yes to things that would ultimately help us grow as individuals. Or simply enjoy ourselves more (if you, like me, get irrationally afraid of social situations with a potential for awkwardness). It’s hard, but stepping out of our comfort zone is really important. It was Harry Potter that motivated me, a few years ago, to try and get over my fear of heights by going to an adventure park and spending three hours constantly having to look down at the great gap between my feet and the ground (it did not get rid og my fear of heights, I just now know that I won’t vomit from it, or die).

8. Being weird is great – being yourself is amazing.

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Isn’t Luna the best? She is so comfortable in her own skin, and genuinely does not care what others think of her. As I kept learning more about her throughout the series, I felt so angry anyone would ever dare to call her Loony Lovegood. She was always true to herself, and that’s what I loved about her. I first read these books during a period of my life when I was trying really hard to fit in (befriend the popular girls, copy what they do, try to seem cool – the whole package). Luna made me realise that being called “weird” or “nerd” at school was actually a compliment, and besides, being myself was less stressful than trying so hard to fit in.

9. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.

On the other side of the spectrum from Luna, we have the (personally) very irritating Gilderoy Lockhart.

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Now, I have nothing against tooting your own horn from time to time, we all need a bit of validation from others. However, in case you haven’t been told before, it’s never nice to pass off other people’s work as your own (Universities call it plagiarism and they take it very seriously). I was astonished Hermione liked this guy when he was first introduced in Chamber of Secrets, so his confession at the end of the book was not that surprising to me – there had been always something off about him. However, the important lesson to take from his unfortunate ending is that being a Lockhart will usually backfire (ha!) and go terribly wrong – it’s hard to force yourself to be something you’re not. I myself aimed for the things Lockhart wanted, such as popularity, but it was really tiring trying to fit in with the popular kids, so in the end I turned back to my “bookworm” status and was much happier.

10. The importance of friendship

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Let’s take a moment and think of all the things Harry would not have been able to achieve without his friends – he wouldn’t even have made it past Philosopher’s Stone. And it’s not only the trio’s friendship that is inspiring. My favourite friendship is between Harry and Luna. She has a lot of wise words for Harry, and moments like him bringing her to the Slug Club Christmas party, or her shouting at him when he was going about finding Ravenclaw’s diadem all wrong, really stood out to me. I also somehow never saw it coming. It’s these unexpected friendships that I cherish a lot in my life as well. I am also continuously grateful for my own trio/squad of ride-or-die friends that have become family as the years have gone by.

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11. You can choose your own family.

“Friends that become family” is something this series made me appreciate. Specifically, Harry and Hermione during Deathly Hallows. It was the simplicity of having the two of them spend time alone together, yet remaining best friends, and then later having Harry confirm that Hermione is like a sister to him, that impressed me beyond measure. It was the first time this type of female-male friendship was presented to me, and I loved it.

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There are a lot of adults in the series that become Harry’s family, the Weasleys being the most significant. They truly make Harry feel like he belongs among them. From the Christmas jumper that Molly knits him in Philosopher’s Stone, to the money that Harry leaves Fred and George so they can open their joke shop, Harry truly becomes a Weasely. I’ve been welcomed into the families of some of my closest friends, which I appreciate immensely, even more so thanks to being aware of the love the Weasleys have for Harry.

12. Love is everything.

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We all know that Harry was saved by a mother’s love several times in the series, but it’s not the only kind of love that saves him – the love of his friends, as well as the love of his family (yes, I am including the Weasleys, too) and of all those who believed in him is just as significant. And the magical protection that love offers Harry (we can say that it was the intensity of Lily’s love for Harry that burned Professor Quill’s face) is a certain example of the importance of love. So if you don’t believe it will save the world, trust that it will save your world.

13. Death is nothing to fear.

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Death is a very important theme throughout the series. Despite the numerous deaths that happen in Harry Potter, there are a lot of positive messages to take away from the books in regards to this topic. Those who die never really leave us, as Harry’s experiences prove over and over again – his mother’s love remained with him as magical protection, Dumbledore still came to his aid in Deathly Hallows, as did his parents. Being aware of this makes moving on from loss possible, which, I believe, is what everyone hopes for after they lose someone dear to them. Harry’s life is struck by death from the very beginning, and although it takes him a while, he eventually grows as a result of it. Death terrifies me. It’s one of my greatest fears – not just dying myself, but having to go through the deaths of those I love most. Harry Potter didn’t cure me of this fear, but it helped me understand what I already knew – that it’s inevitable, and that you can grow from it. Dumbledore says in Half Blood Prince, “”It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” This is a very valuable lesson.

14. Books CAN save your life.

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You know how Harry and Ron wouldn’t have survived through Philosopher’s Stone without Hermione’s smarts? Or how Harry wouldn’t have been able to save Ginny without the book page in Hermione’s hand in Chamber of Secrets? (I could go on, but you get the idea) And how did Hermione become such an indispensable friend and the brightest witch of her age? By going to the library, of course. Hermione made me proud of being a bookworm, and I realised that all the seemingly random knowledge that I have gathered over the years will surely come in handy at some point in my life (such as, at a Harry Potter trivia game).

15. We are more than our illness.

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When you think of Remus Lupin, you think of the amazing Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher that he was, or what a kind mentor he was to Harry, or how great Tonks and him were, and maybe only after do you remember he was a werewolf. He didn’t let his lycanthropy define him. Nor does illness define you. It makes you different, which is always a good thing (even if you have to really think about it in order to realise it), and it should not get in the way of what you love. Focus your energy on being kind, and friendly, and passionate, and people will remember you for these qualities.

16. It’s important to stand up for yourself and your beliefs.

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who didn’t love it when Hermione stood up to Draco Malfoy, be it this:

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Or even better, this:

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It’s important to stand up for yourself. I was constantly told as a child that if I left the bullies alone, they would stop – but if they don’t, then you have to do something to stop it. It’s never a good idea to let people walk all over you. I am a pacifist, so while I don’t encourage fights as a way to “end this once and for all”, there are other peaceful ways to do it.

17. Be accepting of others.

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We get to meet so many different types of characters throughout the books, and I, for one, love this. (You can’t tell me a magical world exists that is only inhabited by human witches and wizards. There has to be more than that.) However, as is the case with our ordinary muggle world, even in J.K. Rowling’s world, judgement exists. People are made fun of based on their appearance (to the point where they permanently alter how they look, such as Hermione making her teeth smaller), their social class and their birth (Snape and Draco never really quit it with making fun of Harry’s “fame”). It’s not cool. There is so much we can learn from each other – we should celebrate our differences, not bring others down.

18. We are all human.

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We’re not perfect. We can’t always be correct, or won’t always do the right thing, or keep our cool in a stressful situation. Harry struggled to come to terms with the idea that he had the potential for a dark path. And while speaking parsletongue isn’t something that I ever worry will lead me to become evil, Harry Potter made me understand that while you can’t be great all the time, it doesn’t take away your greatness.

19. Money isn’t everything.

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It might not be able to buy you a whole trolley of sweets on the Hogwarts Express, but it does not mean that “money buys you happiness”. The Weasleys are my favourite magical family – I fell in love with The Borrow just as much as Harry did, and the bond between them? Priceless. Just compare them with the Malfoys, who seem to have all the riches you could want, yet seem to do a lot worse that the Weasleys they so enjoy looking down upon. The love that they offer Harry, and that he returns, is something far more worthy than money.

20. There is magic everywhere.

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While we will never be able to fly on a broom or cast spells, our muggle world is still full of magic. It might be more simple than the one Harry finds in his textbooks, but it’s just as lovely. My favourite form of magic? Sunsets. And it doesn’t just stop at the wonders of nature. Being transported into another world by books/movies/TV shows? Magic. Having such a great time with friends you forget about time? Magic. The mere existence of pets, who love you more than you love yourself? Magic. It’s everywhere, we just have to pay attention sometimes.

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Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

Synopsis: Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.

This was my first encounter with Khaled Hosseini. Yes, despite this being his second book.

Regardless, it was a very memorable one.

I had heard of Hosseini before, and even though I was aware of the praise being sung for The Kite Runner, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this book, and Hosseini’s poignant and immersive writing.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is never described as an educational book, but it taught me so much.

When I picked it up the first time, I scoffed and thought to myself “I know about Afghanistan and what’s going on there!” But reading a few newspaper articles and hearing about the Taliban on the news wasn’t actually enough for me to make that claim. Hosseini proved my arrogance wrong, and proceeded to actually tell me what had been going on in the country we all know the name of, but not its story. The novel takes you through thirty years of the country’s modern history, from the end of monarchy to the rule of the Taliban. Because the story is told from the point of view of two women, who initially have nothing else in common besides being neighbours, we learn about Afghanistan through the characters, a much more meaningful experience. Hosseini truly manages to show the horrible effect of war on ordinary people’s lives this way – one of the reasons this book is so heart-breaking is because you get to feel the fear and confusion of the people whose backyards are being bombed. Secondary characters also take centre stage when it comes to teaching the reader vital history lessons. Laila’s father, a school teacher and huge bookworm, offers a lot of insight into the country’s current state of affairs, as his interest in politics seeps through almost everything he says. Laila’s two older brothers are actively involved in the fighting that takes place for most of the book. Even Rasheed, Mariam and Laila’s horrible husband, offers vital information regarding the social and political climate through the various regime changes, which would have been more confusing were it not for his indirect explanations.

The characters in this book are all amazing.

I adore Mariam and Laila, they are such strong women, yet so human and relatable. They experience a lot of complex emotions and are really well-developed. Laila’s father is an adorable sweetheart whom I felt very protective towards. Tariq, the boy Laila falls in love with, is a bad boy with a soft heart that even I fell for. Rasheed is THE villain, violent and mean to his wives, only showing compassion for his son (and not for his daughter), and it is impossible not to hate him. The difference between the men portrayed in the novel is a significant one. It points out that there is no one type of man in a society, something which is not only valid just Mariam and Laila’s world, but also to ours.

More than the characters though, I love the interactions and relationships between them. My favourite is the friendship-turned-into-romance between Laila and Tariq. It’s just so pure and honest. And there are a few very heart warming, and some equally heart-breaking, moments between the two. I also love the friendship between Mariam and Laila – yes, even the rocky start. There are people who comment that Mariam’s initial jealousy and anger at Laila (after she marries Rasheed) is unjustified. But when trying to win Laila over, Rasheed was kind to her, something which Mariam never got to experience. Mariam had also been the woman of the house longer – despite the suffering she experiences at the hands of her husband, I can understand why suddenly having to share everything with a stranger would make you upset. I also really love Laila’s children, especially the way they interact with Tariq.

It’s a really tough book, though – very far from an easy read.

The hardship Mariam and Laila endure is not easy to get over, even after closing the book. Mariam has a tough life from the beginning. She is the illegitimate child of a wealthy business man, and lives with her mother in an isolated place outside Herat (the city where the majority of the plot takes place). The relationship between her and her mother is strained, her only joy being the visits from her father. However, he isn’t the brilliant man she has made him to be, and later, he never welcomes her into his home or his family, marrying her off to Rasheed to keep her away. If this isn’t painful enough, the suffering she must endure as Rasheed’s wife is unbearable, yet becomes something of the ordinary for Mariam. By contrast, Laila has a much better upbringing, going to school and making friends, as well as having a proper house to live in. Despite all this, she also ends up married to Rasheed, enduring the same suffering as Mariam. It’s a really tough lesson about hardship. It can strike and any time, regardless of upbringing or social situation.

But the real lesson is about friendship and love, and how these can persevere against any obstacle and challenge. Female friendship in this book is the purest form of joy and hope. It made me cry happy tears. And love…this is no fairy tale, but it portrays love in the same way. Despite the war, the poverty and the hardship this book keeps telling us about, it is also overwhelmingly positive in its message.

A Thousand Suns was life changing, and I do not say that lightly. It taught me about Afghanistan, and made me realise how much I take for granted every day. It taught me about hardship, abuse and loss. It taught me about strength. It showed me there is beauty among the rubble, love among the hate, and above all, there is always hope.

It made me cry on the bus. People shot me strange looks, and the elderly lady next to me gave me a tissue. I don’t cry on buses. But that’s the kind of boo this is – it will make you cry in public.

five-stars

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Book Review – “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

Warning! You might stumble upon a few spoilers.

Synopsis: In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely. 

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. 

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

This book is brilliant for a lot of different reasons.

For one, there’s the diversity offered by this novel. I have personally never read a YA novel set in the Bronx before, so just the setting itself got me really excited. The novel never strays from this side of New York City, and Adam Silvera manages to convincingly capture life in urban poverty, where Aaron’s mother works two jobs yet can barely afford the small flat the family live in, and things like a friend owning a desk or their own bed rouse Aaron’s feelings of desire. The group of friends that Aaron spends his time with is made up of people we might not consider even going near at first, such as criminals or school drop-outs, but whom, as the novel goes on, turn out to be more than just their social status.

The novel isn’t just about life in the Bronx, though. It also deals with the difficult subject of depression.

I am always weary when it comes to mental health in novels. There are too many ways in which it could go wrong (see the review for All The Brilliant Places and Thirteen Reasons Why, which I dislike too much to comment on). But this book does it well, and it is thanks to Aaron’s narration. Silvera has really managed to make his narrative voice very realistic. It’s through the progression of days that we get a clear sense of the difficult journey he’s going through, the suicide of his father and his l own failed attempt never leaving his mind for long. Despite this undertone of dark emotion, Aaron is quite the quirky guy. I really love the way he engages with those around him.

And it doesn’t stop with depression, the novel also tackles the process of coming out – it does this through the wider topic of self-acceptance.

I really love the relationship that Aaron and Genevieve have (their “Trade Dates” is a really interesting idea that should actually become a thing in relationships, I am telling you). She is his rock, and yet I love that she is not simply reduced to that. In fact, it’s the other way around; Aaron is the one who, I feel, identifies himself through the label of “Genevieve’s boyfriend”. And it’s something that I felt he does with everyone around him in the first part of the novel, before he starts questioning his feelings for Thomas. Funny Thomas should come up, because he is the boy onto whom Aaron projects his fears regarding himself. Aaron assumes Thomas is gay very early on, and then keeps quiet about it because he knows his friends would not approve if they found out, yet it becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses that he is fearing for himself, not for Thomas. Which is why Aaron can’t accept Thomas’s confession that he is straight and accuses him of denying his sexuality. The comic book Aaron was working on is another fascinating insight into Aaron’s journey of acknowledging his sexuality. Aaron says: “If I were faced with Sun Warden’s decision – whether or not to save his girlfriend or best friend from a dragon – I’m sorry to change my mind, but Thomas would fall away without me moving a muscle. And I would make that choice without a doubt because the bottom line is that Genevieve is my girlfriend and I’m her boyfriend, and Thomas and I are just friends and that’s that.” He is clearly fighting himself.

The plot twist that happens towards the end of the novel was anything but that for me.

There are so many moments scattered throughout the novel where things either don’t make sense, so you know something is up, or it’s easy to guess that something will happen. However, this isn’t what ruined the latter part of the book for me. The ending was something I did not see coming, and sadly, not in a good way. The positive message conveyed at the end contrasts with how sad it is, which you could say achieves the effect of making it more poignant, but I felt like the whole ending was just…wrong. Also, while the last few pages leave us with amazing quotes, such as “If there’s happiness tucked away in my tragedies, I’ll find it no matter what. If the blind can find joy in music, and the deaf can discover it with colours, I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending – it’s a series of endless happy beginnings,” it also left me extremely confused about the overarching message of the novel.

There’s also the sci-fi side to the book.

The Leteo Institute, which allows people to erase memories. It can be seen as a metaphor for the dreaded conversion centres/ therapy, and the fact that it ultimately fails to make Aaron’s wish come true clearly adds to the comparison. The existence of the Institute really troubled me as I was reading the book, mainly because it seemed to promise an easy escape when life got too hard, and surely dealing with the bad stuff that life throws at you is ultimately what makes you grow as a person, so this was taking it all away (and where would that leave the emotional growth of the characters). Silvera seems to be aware of such worries the reader might have, since the latter part of the novel pretty much gives you the answer. The Leteo Institute, while actually being put to one side for most of the novel, plays a really big part in the ending, and as you know by now, that left me baffled. As a consequence, I am not too keen on this whole Leteo Institute side of the story.

I didn’t like this book when I first read it, I must confess.

I wanted to, so badly, and, to be honest, I think that might have been the problem. I have only heard good things about this book, and I ended up seeing only the negative, because in my mind I was sceptical about the hype surrounding this book. Therefore, things suddenly seemed stereotypical and clichéic and annoying. Everything you have read in this review until now is still completely honest, though. It took me a while to realise that I might have been judging the book too hard. Sure, I found it annoying that Aaron seemed to love his girlfriend mostly because she put up with him. Yet thinking about it, he had just gone through the traumatic experience of his father’s suicide. I think all of us would be grateful to have someone who stays, no matter how ugly the process of coping with the aftermath of such an event is. And yes, I found Aaron’s revelation that he is into guys quite the cliché, especially since Aaron didn’t seem to consider the fact that he might be bisexual, he just went ahead and called himself a “dude-liker” (I am aware that the ending might kind of explain why he unconsciously jumps directly to the “gay” label, but for me that still isn’t a good enough reason). Later I realised that it was something I could identify with, because I was myself only aware of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the beginning, before I realised there could be a “middle ground”, let alone a whole spectrum.

This book is quite a journey, for the characters themselves and for the reader (or so it was for me). Silvera deserves to be proud of this debut novel, he manages to tackle some incredibly complex issues with a lot of honesty and emotion. I am not 100% in love with this book, there are things like the ending which I just can’t get behind, but it is still a book I would recommend, especially if you’re looking for class diversity and sci-fi, all with a lovely sprinkle of LGBT.

3-stars

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Book Review – “The Price of Salt”/”Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis: The Price of Salt is the story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department-store day job, whose salvation arrives one day in the form of Carol Aird, an alluring suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.

Say hello to one of my all-time favourite books!

I don’t even know where to begin, I have so many feelings and thoughts about this, so let me start by telling you that this novel was loved from the moment it first came out in 1952. It wasn’t called Carol back then, but The Price of Salt, and Patricia Highsmith published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, because she claims she didn’t want to be known as a “lesbian-book writer”, but the lesbians loved it anyway. Why?

Because this was the first novel where the gay couple had a shot at happiness at the end of the story.

Sure, it can be argued that the ending of Highsmith’s novel isn’t all that happy, and we don’t really know what’s in store for Carol and Therese, but they don’t die, or go depressed and crazy, or have to try to lead a “normal” life. And even today, that is a big thing. Because the “bury your gays” trope is still there, and still annoyingly popular, so novels like this one are paperback pieces of hope for the LGBT community looking for better representation. Right from the start, Highsmith was praised for writing a story that lesbian women could identify with, and while we no longer live in the 1950s, having your sexuality held against you, as happens in the case of Carol, is something that many of us still have to deal with today. Not to mention figuring out the nature of your feelings for someone of your own gender for the first time, which is what Therese has to go through in the first half of the novel.

And Highsmith did something else, too. She changed the way lesbian women were viewed in society by going against the stereotypical portrayal, where one of the women in the relationship was expected to be visibly butch.

(Does anyone else’s mind wonder to one of the most annoying things lesbian couples get asked, “which one of you wears the pants/is the man in the relationship”? It makes me both happy to see how such a great book is still relevant today, yet this also saddens me, because after 60 years, it shows that not that much has changed regarding the LGBT community.)

I love the way she breaks this stereotype, too, because Highsmith doesn’t just simply make Carol sophisticated and then expects us to be impressed that her character isn’t butch, but she shows how ingrained this idea of the butch lesbian was in society by having Therese herself be amazed by Carol’s appearance: “She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that. Yet the way she felt about Carol passed all the tests for love and fitted all the descriptions.”

But being a relevant lesbian story is not the only thing that makes this novel so amazing. After all, as Highsmith is not simply a lesbian-book writer. She states that she planned the novel while having a fever, and while this might not actually have anything to do with the writing itself, “feverish” is definitely the word I would use to describe it. The writing is packed with details and action, and is just as intense as the plot itself. The story is gripping from the first sentence, and then it keeps you hooked like an addict, until your eyes are hurting and the words are swimming on the page and it’s so late you can no longer make out reality from fantasy. The novel provides a very intense reading experience, even if the writing style can be described as conversational (because, even though it may be packed with detail, it flows just as easily as a conversation). It really works, though, the seemingly laid back style with the intensity that it nevertheless depicts. It really brings the character’s feelings into a better perspective, allowing us to experience the confusion, disorientation and even obsession they might have felt, too – especially Therese, who has to deal with thoughts and emotions that are very new to her.

I have to admit that, as nuanced and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not always the most lovable. Although Carol seems amazing when looking at her through Therese’s eyes, I often found myself in a love-hate relationship regarding her while reading the book. There are times when she is simply cold and cruel. Therese herself isn’t that much better, she seems heartless towards people at times, especially towards her boyfriend. Yet it’s both of them, together, that I love the most. The moments they share together, when they can be themselves and joke or reveal secrets about their lives. Such moments, which might not be the ones where the two protagonists fell in love with each other, are the ones where I fell in love with them.

I greatly love the road trip setting that most of the novel offers. This feeling might have been fuelled by Kerouac’s On The Road, which I read prior to my first reading of this book, but it is on this trip that Therese matures in the way she loves Carol and the way she views the world. And it is this trip that reveals what it was like to be a lesbian woman in the 1950s, which are perceived as having been very restrictive times. However, from this novel alone, we can see that the times weren’t as we depict it today. Not only were people aware of homosexuality, but you could also find accepting communities, most clearly shown through Carol and Abby’s friendship, as well as through the interaction between the actress and Therese, whom she meets towards the end of the novel. Also, as the road trip shows, two women could share the same bed at a hotel and not draw attention to themselves, the possibility of them living together also being implied.

The road trip section of the novel also makes Highsmith’s talent for writing thrillers felt, from the gun in the suitcase all the way to the detective that follows them. And don’t you think a road trip to … nowhere, really, is a great metaphor for their relationship? They have no idea where they’ll end up, they have no guidance, not even a map like they do for the trip, and you could read even deeper into this and say that the detective following them is the views and expectations of society (ok, so I might be stretching it a bit here, but it could work, right?).

I will always be grateful to Highsmith for defying the norm and paving the way towards a more positive representation, not only for lesbian women but for the whole LGBT community. It is for this reason, and for her amazing writing, that her novel will surely win the hearts of many generations to come, too.

five-stars.png

 

 

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Review – “All The Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Synopsis: An exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life. Soon it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a bold, funny, live-out-loud guy, who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet forgets to count away the days and starts living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. This is a heart-wrenching, unflinching story of love shared, life lived, and two teens who find one another while standing on the edge.

This book was one that was constantly brought to my attention every time I seemed to completely forget about it, so in the end I finally decided to read it.

I have never been too keen on the book being advertised as the next The Fault in Our Stars, not because I have something with John Green, but because it ultimately uses the novel’s senstive subject matter of mental illness as a way of promoting the story, thus risking turining it into a sensational topic. But the general consensus among those who have read it is that it is worthwile, so I decided to look beyond what is, in my opinion, a questionable marketing strategy.

The novel has a very strong, gripping opening – the first line really sticks with you. It is a bit clichéic for me, but it did make me want to read on, even if only for the sake of seeing if the clichés continue. As the synopsis says, the book opens with the main characters meeting on the bell tower of their high school, which throws the reader right in the thick of the action.

The story follows Violet and Theodore Finch, who take turns being narrators, and who are both in a really bad place when we first meet them on that bell tower. The friendship that unfolds between them shows readers how two very different people can come together in the best of ways, even if they are brought together by an unfortunate situation.

I took an immediate liking to Finch. Beyond the synopsis description of him being a guy who constantly comes up with ways to kill himself, he is complex and rich – a very well rounded character, with whom it’s really easy to engage. He manages to encompass the contradictions that take over when you suffer from depression – his constant need to stay alive, while being unable to stop himself from thinking about the ways other people have commited suicide. Violet is similarly having a hard time coming to terms with her sister having passed away, and the way she has retreated in her shell as a result of it is something that I really appreciate, because it feels like such a realistic reaction to such a traumatic event. I love the way their love doesn’t just happen, but progresses from friendship, and the way their journey across Indiana to discover their state also turns into a journey of self-discovery. I am also a huge fan of the fact that they use Virginia Woolf quotes.

However, as much as I loved the characters and their journey, there are a few things which I was not pleased with. Firstly, while for the most part, the book is hopeful regarding mental illness, the ending throws that away (it is also pretty predictable thanks to the structure of the book). Moreover, recovering from mental illness is, in my opinion, treated problematically in the novel. There is no mention of any medication that might help, Finch’s mental illness remains undiagnosed and therapists are portrayed in a pretty negative light. So, while the book seems helpful to someone who knows people that are struggling with mental illness, it does not do too much for those who are suffering from it.

What really, really bothered me the most, however, is the way no one tries to figure out what is wrong with Finch. His problems are mostly ignored by his friends and family. And while he is actively helping Violet move past the trauma that holds her stuck in the past, no-one is putting in a similar effort for him. He is fighting against his issues by himself. The final part of the book, especially, becomes about Violet rather than Finch and what he has been going through. While I am aware that there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, I did hope that the novel would fight against that in order to show that we should at least try to understand and attempt to help someone who is suffering from it.

Despite this, I really enjoyed the novel, and I am certain that Finch will forever remain on my list of most beloved book characters. I do really recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of John Green-like novels (yes, the promo is right in this comparison, to some extent). I personally look forward to reading more novels by Jennifer Niver.

3-stars

Female characters you NEED in your life

Female characters you NEED in your life

Happy International Women’s Day to all the amazing, lovely, badass ladies out there! What better occasion than this day, dedicated to celebrating and empowering women, than to talk about my favourite fictional females of all time? There are many to whom I have looked up to throughout my life – they have helped me improve my self-confidence, overcome struggles with body image or societal expectations. I owe a lot to the books I read, the movies and shows I watch, and the characters I find in them, which is why I feel like the world needs to know and celebrate more the importance of female characters and the impact that they can have on their readers.

From books:

  • Matilda ( Matilda by Roald Dahl) – As the first role model that I ever had in my life, Matilda is truly one of a kind. Teaching children that adults are not always right is a very important lesson, which I had not encountered before. Matilda is also always true to herself and not afraid to show it; she doesn’t let anyone try to change who she is. Plus, who could hate a girl who loves to read? The book’s wonderful message that knowledge is power has stuck with me throughout my life.
  • Hermione Granger (the Harry Potter franchise by J.K Rowling) – Hermione is the one who taught me that there was no shame in being called an overachiever, or being labelled a bookworm. Being interested in your academical success is important, and Hermione is a reminder of that. However, she also reminds us that life is not only about “books and cleverness”, but also about friendship and bravery. She nails those too, even Ron admits it: “We wouldn’t last two days without her.”
  • Jo March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott) – I love all the March sisters and what they stand for. However, Jo is the one that really stood out to me. She doesn’t fit into the gender norms that society ascribed, she doesn’t settle for things that are simply expected of her – she only agrees to the things she wants – and never forgets her family and friends, even while fighting for her dreams.Above all, she is a writer (I have a weak spot for them)!
  • Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) – I feel like it would not be an overstatement to claim that Elizabeth Bennet can be considered one of the most respected female heroines in English literature – she is that awesome. She is intelligent, witty and incredibly passionate about her beliefs. She gives little thought to the opinions of others regarding her character. Of course, she still has flaws (she judges others very easily, is dismissive when others do things that she disapproves of, and is rather bad at adapting to different situations) which many have labelled as her way of rejecting the repressive standards of her time. This might be true, but those flaws make her story compelling and interesting, and show that being flawed adds to one’s character rather than takes away from it.
  • Celie (The Colour Purple by Alice Walker)Women’s rights sit at the heart of Walker’s novel, but this theme shines through Celie. She has to suffer through emotional and physical abuse, but she never complains about any of the injustice done to her; she simply wonders why it exists. Her self-worth, of which there is little in the beginning of the novel, grows immensely as the narrative progresses, and she ends up a confident woman by the end. This is mostly thanks to the amazing female friendships that are portrayed in the novel – Shug encourages Celie to grow stronger psychologically and Sofia shows Celie how to stand up to men and to prejudice and injustice. The emotional strength that Celie shows , her perseverance and ferocious love for her sister are traits that make Celie a truly unforgettable character.

From movies:

  • Mulan (Mulan) – How many people would give up their whole life (name, identity, their home and its comforts, the familiarity of their surroundings) and go fight in the war for their father? Mulan did it without a second thought, something that stuck with me since the first time I saw the Disney movie. Her bravery left me speechless, not to mention the fact that Mulan was also the first movie I saw where the girl saves the guy and there’s no waiting around for the prince. I am very glad this is something that can be found in several Disney movies now.
  • Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) – Quirky, fun and an inspiration to women everywhere. Whatever doubts people might have about Elle’s character are shattered from the moment she sets her mind on going to Harvard and never gives up her goal until it is achieved. Despite everyone’s doubts, she not only makes it to Harvard, she also makes it to the top of the class. She never shies away from calling people out for their preconceptions of her due to her looks, she is supportive of her friends, and always remains true to herself. Take that from a “dumb blonde”!
  • Bridget Jones (Briget Jones’ Diary) – There is a lot of dispute around whether or not Bridget Jones is a good role model to have, especially as a feminist. Without wanting to get into that debate, I will say that I have always liked Bridget Jones. She is a very refreshing character to see on-screen. She is much more realistic than other rom-com heroines; she is a pretty relatable woman in search of love. I appreciate her awkwardness the most, and the way she handles that. Life is not always pretty and smooth, and other than creating a moment of comedy, Bridget’s slip-ups remind us that they are a normal occurrence. What’s also important to acknowledge is that every time Bridget says the wrong thing, she always manages to recover. As the saying goes, “fall down seven times, stand up eight” – Bridget Jones is the embodiment of that, which is why I will always appreciate her character.
  • Belle (Beauty and the Beast) – I have a real love for bookworms (in case this was not evident by now) and it will come as no surprise that Belle is my favourite Disney princess of all time. She appreciates the value of knowledge, looks beyond appearances and values personality. She doesn’t fall for the first guy that sets eyes on her, loves her father and sacrifices her freedom for him, , and, just like Mulan, ends up doing the saving instead of needing to be saved. Which is why I am loving the fact that Belle will be played by Emma Watson in the live action movie – there’s no one better suited to fill Belle’s shoes. The remake also turns Belle into an inventor – what a role model for girls everywhere!
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) – Katniss is worth of admiration right from the start, through her love for her sister and her selflessness. She truly inspires to believe in personal strength, and in the change that can result from a single person. Despite adversity, she still did what was right, even when that proved not to be easy. Her perseverance and her strong will are what drew me to her, and what make her the heroine that she is.

From TV Shows:

  • Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) – When it comes to empowering female characters, look no further than Leslie Knope. From her wall of inspirational women, to her fierce love for her friends, it just doesn’t get better than Leslie. She does not tolerate mansplaining, she is ready to put privileged men in their place, she fights for sexual education and is hilarious in every single episode. If you are looking for a perfect woman, her name is Leslie Knope.
  • Donna Paulsen (Suits) – I am yet to find a person who is not in love with Donna. She might be known due to her working for Harvey Specter, but she is so much more than that. She is extremely perceptive, knows everything that happens in the firm and has a sharper wit than everyone else’s put together. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and is not afraid to use them in her advantage. Everyone, from the associates to the partners, respects but also fears her. Donna is truly a force of nature. On top of all this, she is also an amazing friend, and fiercely loyal. I think everyone should strive to be like Donna.
  • Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) – Arya Stark was a favourite of mine since the beginning of the show. She clearly has no interest to fit into the role that society has deemed for her, that of a lady. She excels at male oriented activities such as archery, does not “dress to impress” but rather does it for personal comfort and she doesn’t let people talk down to her. She is independent and fierce, and everyone loves her for it.
  • Eleven (Stranger Things) – It took Eleven only one week to escape from a highly secure secret organisation that was holding her hostage, learn the true meaning of friendship, and save an innocent child from being killed by a horrible monster through personal sacrifice. That already shows how much love, compassion and strength she possesses. She doesn’t let her gender determine how she goes about her life, acting on what she thinks she should be rather than what society expects her to be. She goes against the idea that girls are the ones that need to be saved, and ends up being the saviour instead. She also sets an example to everybody through her interactions with male characters in the show, not allowing them to walk over her or dictate her behaviour.
  • Kala Dandekar (Sense8) – Here you have an Indian woman who works as a scientist for a major pharmaceutical company in Mumbai – this alone makes her an inspiration already. However, she does not stop there. Throughout the series, she uses her scientific skills on several occasions to save the other characters – she makes a bomb using simple kitchen supplies and knows what drugs to use to wake people from medically induced comas. It can not get more badass than that!