The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

the things we thought we knewRavine is eighteen years old and has been in bed for the past ten years with chronic pain. Her mum cares for her and tries to keep pushing her forward, but Ravine feels stuck and hopeless. Ten years ago, Ravine had a best friend, Marianne, she did everything with. But then Marianne disappeared…

This isn’t a book for me. The writing style had a few beautiful moments but was mostly just okay. Throughout the book it also teases about Something Happening in the past with a reveal at the end, which is a pretty common ‘page-turning’ device that wasn’t done in an interesting or new way, so it was just kind of annoying (aside: the structure of All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld is probably the best take I’ve seen on this). I did like the way she wrote about the council estate and the community there, and many of her characters are richly drawn and engaging.

The reason I requested this from the publisher is that the main character has chronic pain. Chronic, invisible, illnesses are so rarely represented in literature, particularly within main characters, and I’m always keen to find good representation (I don’t have chronic pain but have other health shenanigans). This started well. The way Snaith described living with chronic pain/illness as a kind of living deathbed (‘lifebed’) felt spot on-

Imagine sinking into your bed every day for nearly eleven years. You wake up. You go to the toilet. You collapse back into bed and sail off. Except you don’t sail anywhere because some bastard has moored you to a pole. You float in your sea of pain, hoping someone will come and hack the rope to pieces and set you free. They never do.

But then, very early in the book, she spontaneously recovers. Completely. For some people, chronic pain or illness is related to psychological trauma (there is less of a Cartesian split between mind and body than many, including medicine, think), and this seems to be the case for Ravine and I don’t have an issue with that. But she hadn’t faced or worked through her trauma in any way before it had an effect on her pain; she just thought about maybe writing about what happened, and then went from excruciating pain most of the day to absolutely nothing, before she’d even written/thought through it. It doesn’t make any sense. It made Ravine’s chronic pain feel like an ill-thought-out plot device to place her where she needed to be physically, and as a lazily done ‘physical pain representing mental pain’. In fact I read somewhere that Snaith had originally planned for Ravine to be in coma, but it didn’t work so replaced the coma with pain. I think she must have done some research / spoken to someone with chronic illness to describe it well early on, but then either ignored it or didn’t go further in order to make her plot points work. It’s kind of disappointing.

A book that probably wouldn’t be completely my thing anyway, but that also doesn’t represent chronic pain all that well in the end. Two stars.

The Things We Thought We Knew is out on 15th June 2017.

I received a free copy from Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.

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Casanova – the ballet

casanova-1.jpgAs I’ve said before I love Northern Ballet because they’re such good storytellers, and Casanova was no exception.

Based on Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova, Kenneth Tindall (an ex-Northern Ballet dancer) created his very first full-length piece that moves from his time in the church, to his many benefactors and lovers, to Casanova as a musician, writer and thinker. I liked that it ended with his whole life and his writing as his legacy, not just his labido, because he did live such a fascinating and varied life.

The choreography was fluid and sensual. Tindall created some really interesting shapes with the corps, and the various sex scenes were just so creative and beautiful and seductive and a real highlight. I always think the mess of sex and violence work really well in an art form as formal and controlled as ballet, and this was probably the best I’ve seen in that respect. I love a pas de deux, and each in this had its own character and feel. I particularly liked the one with Bellino where they gradually learn to trust each other and the way she reveals who she is, and the contrast with Casanova and Henriette which was much more tender and careful.

This is probably the most visually stunning ballet I’ve ever seen. I don’t normally notice lighting, but it really stood out for me in this piece. Designed by Alastair West, it perfectly captured different moods and settings, and was used to great effect to highlight scenes happening at the same time and the violence of Bragadin’s stroke. It also worked so well with the set, especially the tall mirror-pillars in the second half. The set design by Christopher Oram was brilliant, as were his incredible and colourful costumes.

The one thing I think it needed was a little more time with Henriette. Her relationship with Casanova didn’t feel any more significant than Bellino’s or Balletti’s, so Casanova’s response to her leaving didn’t have as much impact as it could have done. But I suspect that’s a result of trying to squeeze a huge amount into two hours.

The run has finished in Leeds, but it’s now on tour for a couple of months – find out where here and definitely catch it while you can. Sensual, stunning, and colourful – you ain’t seen ballet til you’ve seen Venetian orgy ballet. Hot damn.

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February screentime 2017

I’ve decided to do monthly wrap-ups of the new-to-me TV/films I’ve watched over a month. I recently got Netflix so the amount of stuff I’m properly watching, rather than just having Law & Order on in the background, has risen exponentially, especially as I’ve been too tired to read in the evenings much this month. So, in the order I watched them:

13th13th (2016) documentary, Netflix

Holy shit this is amazing. Not only is it an incredibly important film about mass incarceration in the US, and its roots in slavery, but it’s incredibly well put together. It’s tightly edited, interesting, informative, and has some really affecting sections, particularly the scenes with Trump speaking at one of his campaign rallies over old footage of black people people pushed and beaten on the street, and the montage of black men killed by police filmed on mobile phones. Ava DuVernay is a genius. This is the best thing I watched this month and I urge to seek it out.

valley uprising.jpgValley Uprising (2014) documentary, Netflix

This is a documentary about the history of climbing in Yosemite. I used to climb a lot when I was younger, but nowhere near the level of these guys. I loved watching Alex Honnold, who free solos (climbing alone without a rope) at unbelievable heights in a way that looks soothingly effortless, and incredibly tense when you remember just how high he is. It was an enjoyable easy watch – not great but enjoyable enough.

audre-and-daisyAudre & Daisy (2016) documentary, Netflix

Focusing on two teenage girls who were raped while passed out drunk at parties, this documentary looks at the aftermath of online bullying, disbelief by the police and the community, and mental health. Though the stories and their wider implications are important, and need to be talked about more, I don’t think this was a great film. Some of the editing was a bit clunky, and it just didn’t go into the kind of depth or push the police interviewees as much as I wanted. Probably a doc to watch if you’re not already quite familiar with the subject.

orange-is-the-new-blackOrange is the New Black (seasons 1-4) series, Netflix

I’m very late to this party but I binge-watched all of this and really enjoyed it. Obviously Piper’s story is the least interesting, but I like that the writers seem to mostly use her as a way into the prison and as a connecting thread, and tell other people’s stories, with increasing focus on other people.

hidden-figuresHidden Figures (2017) film, cinema

This was brilliant. As well as highlighting the often forgotten contribution of these black women to the space program, it’s just a really enjoyable film with a great soundtrack. I know they’ve messed with the timelines and used some broad brush strokes in adapting the book, but it’s great and I can see why it’s the highest grossing of all the best picture oscar nominees. I really want to read the book now to get the fuller, more nuanced picture.

dear-white-peopleDear White People (2014) film, Netflix

I kept hearing a lot about this film due to the series coming out soon, and all the white people freaking out about it. I though it was great – it’s funny in a smart way and, as well as racism, is about finding your identity and others’ perceptions of that identity. I’m looking forward to the series.

under-the-shadowUnder The Shadow (2016) film, Netflix

This is a really smart Iranian horror movie. You could watch it as a fairly straightforward paranormal horror, but, set in 1980s Tehran, it’s also about the trauma and intense anxiety of living through a war. The boundaries between the real and the supernatural are seamless enough in the beginning that I didn’t think there would be any real ‘spirit’ elements at all. I was quite tired when I watched it so I saw it with English dubbing rather than subtitles, which I don’t recommend. The voiceover actress wasn’t great so some of the emotion was lost. Definitely watch it, but watch it with the original voices and subtitles.

33% (2016) series, Netflix

This is a Brazilian dystopian YA series which was enjoyable enough but I wanted it to say something more/wider. It clearly has a fairly low budget but does a lot with what it has, probably because it’s directed by César Charlone. I will check out season two if/when it’s released, and is another one to watch with subtitles rather than dubbing.

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February reads 2017

I only read three books in February, but two of them were pretty long so I actually read more pages than average, I think. All in all not a bad month for books:

being-mortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande (non-fiction)

This is a book about care as people age or become terminally ill, the limits of medicine and medical professionals, and what having a ‘good death’ might mean. It doesn’t really offer any answers, but does lay out the problems in the way we currently deal with things, particularly in our lack of communication with each other about what we want, and how far we’ve gone from true ‘assisted living’ to something that just has that name, but isn’t. Though it wasn’t discussed at all, what the book made me think about was also the lack of adequate care for young disabled people who need, for example, personal care. They often end up on wards or in care homes for older people, which are already lacking in true assisted living support and even more inappropriate for young people than they already are for older people. Gawande is an engaging writer, and a doctor willing to criticise his own practise as well as medicine and care as a whole. I would have preferred a bit of a deeper dive into policy and how that’s affected social care and the treatment of terminal illness within medicine, and some sections could have been edited a bit more because it felt like a long-form essay that had been padded out at times. But still worth a read if death, ageing, and end-of-life care interests you. And it needs to interest more people if anything is going to change on individual or wider level.

anna-kareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (novel, Russian in translation)

This didn’t quite do it for me because, though I loved some parts, I felt pretty meh about others. It was surprisingly easy to read and breezed through it fairly quickly considering its length, and the characters are complex and contradictory in a way I love. But I didn’t love it in the way I was expecting. Full review here.

black-and-britishBlack and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga (non-fiction)

In my history lessons at school, we did a (very) little about the slave trade, glimpsed at the black civil rights movement in America, and then the rest of history was pretty much all white. This book, which is also a BBC series, goes some way to filling in a few of my gaps. Starting with evidence of black Romans buried in York, it moves through time to almost the present day. Obviously, there’s only so much it can cover in 600 pages, and there are only 100-ish pages dedicated to history post-WWI. But I think it’s a good thing to come away feeling like there should be more – because there should be. Black British history isn’t a separate entity; it is British history. And this is an interesting and engaging account of some of that history, with some great photos in my edition too. This is my pick of the month by far.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna-kareninaTranslated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

I got this beautiful new Vintage classics edition which is part of their Russian classics reissue. All the covers in the series use Russian textile designs from the nineteenth century and Soviet era and are gorgeous.

It’s a big book, and 1000ish pages can look a bit intimidating, but it’s surprisingly easy to read. I loved parts of this book and felt meh about other parts.

So much of this novel is about the search for meaning, and working out how to live. All of the characters are complex, contradictory, and trying to find their way. They are all human and flawed and doing their best (which doesn’t always mean what would be best for them). Levin and Anna, both equally the central characters despite the title, are very different people, but essentially have the same questions about life. The contrast is how joy and death move in different directions for them.

Sometimes it feels a little bogged down in repeated, similar conversations about farming technique or philosophy. I get that they were there as a literal and metaphorical part of that search for meaning, but at times it was too much and some sections were a slog. Particularly as Tolstoy is definitely an advocate of ‘tell don’t show’.

I lot of the book is also about the differing position of men and women in society. After Anna leaves Karenin for Vronksy, she is shunned by society; most of her former friends won’t even visit her at home. Vronsky, on the other hand, is able to live just as he had before without question. This, and Vronsky’s lack of real understanding, underlies the tension between them. Equally, Kitty, expecting a proposal from Vronsky but not getting one, is made to feel incredible shame, even though nothing happened and she did nothing wrong. Dolly is cheated on Oblonsky, but she is seen as the unreasonable one for being upset about it and wanting to leave.

Even so, I wouldn’t call this a wholly feminist novel. Women are praised, by Tolstoy, for meekness and submissiveness – “She was frightened, shy, shamefaced, and therefore even more charming.” Vomit. And nearly every woman bursts into tears as soon as someone even disagrees with them (and the ones that don’t are not painted in a positive light).

I also thought it ended a bit oddly. I can see that Levin and Anna both finding answers to their existential crises was supposed to stand in contrast as their lives had throughout the book, but finishing with Levin’s ending rather than Anna’s made it feel a bit flat.

I like books that explore meaning and have fully rounded characters, so I should have loved this. But it didn’t blow me away the way Moby Dick did, which is what I was expecting. There’s a lot I loved about it and some sections were incredible, but I felt so meh about other parts I couldn’t love the book as whole. A nearly-but-not-quite read for me.

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January reads 2017

midnights-childrenMidnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (novel)

Parts of this were great; others were a slog. Normally I like an unlikeable narrator/anti-hero, and a non-linear narrative, but Saleem was such an arrogant dick I couldn’t get on board with him. I think because it felt like Rushdie was using him at times to point out his own cleverness, in a way like, “did you see what I did there? And this parallel over here, did you see that? And here, look, another clever parallel I made between Saleem and India!”. It was incredibly annoying and I need a bit more room to breathe and think than that. There were a lot of interesting ideas and enjoyable sections, but it felt like wading through a lot of annoyance between them.

homegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi (novel)

It does live up to the hype. I think I appreciated it more reading it after Midnight’s Children because it was a breeze to read in comparison, and felt less convoluted despite covering more characters and a longer timespan. The ending let it down as it felt like it was shoe-horned in to make a point and end things far too neatly, and didn’t fit with the characters. However, it’s a book that’s definitely worth your time as an interesting, readable, and important novel about how the trauma of slavery to individuals and communities transmits through the generations to the modern day. Full review here.

human-actsHuman Acts by Han Kang (novel, Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This book is stark and brutal, and is about the violence done to the body as a violence to the soul – as the violence of the Gwangju uprising and massacre afflicts the community’s soul. I love the control and simplicity of Han Kang’s writing and the way she uses multiple perspectives and tenses to circle around and show different views of not just the event itself but also its aftermath. I also really appreciated Deborah Smith’s translator’s note & introduction at the beginning. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Vegetarian, but it’s still excellent and I’m impatient for her other work to be translated. Full review here.

the-argonautsThe Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (non-fiction)

This is a book about the fluidity of the apparent juxtapositions within gender, identity, love, and parenthood, written in a fluid style that moves between memoir and academic analysis. Whilst I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, I enjoyed that it made me do the work and it’s more a collection of thoughts to consider. It’s not often I read a book where the overarching themes are clearer than the specifics, but I liked it. Full review here.

Zines (fiction & non-fiction)

Screenshot 2017-02-01 15.24.31.pngI went to a local zine fair and picked up a bunch of random stuff that varied in production and type of content to try out. A lot were ok, but not great. The best ones took a fully-formed idea and presented it simply but clearly, in a way that used the physical format of a zine, so thought about the medium as well as the message. Or were like the best short stories / flash fiction and were a coherent whole story that’s a fragment that also speaks to a larger/wider whole. A couple annoyed me because they had the potential to be something more. They were the ones about what it was like entering a particular situation as a more privileged outsider, like volunteering at the Calais refugee camp or going to prison for a week, that centred their own voices and experiences rather than the people/issues they were telling you about. Zines are often there to tell your own story, which of course is a valid thing, but I would be more interested in hearing the voices of those who are not normally heard, and the authors using their zines/platforms to elevate those voices rather than just show their own lens. It just felt like an opportunity missed.

Currently reading: The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching (non-fiction)

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The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

the-argonautsThis book was described to me as being a kind of memoir about how Nelson’s body changed with pregnancy while her partner Harry’s body changed as he started taking testosterone and had surgery. It is, and it isn’t. This aspect of the book is important, but isn’t really the main focus. It’s really a book about juxtapositions that are not juxtapositions – male/female, birth/death, baby/mother, assimilation/revolution – the fluidity between them.

On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male’, mine, more and more ‘female’. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were ageing.

The fluidities between apparent firm binaries forms the centre of the book as “an endless becoming”. The title itself comes from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

…in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

The ‘Argo’ reappears throughout the book as an image of this renewal/re-creation that both changes and does not change the subject.

The book itself is written in a fluid way which moves between more academic analysis and more traditional memoir, without any chapter breaks. While the overarching themes are clear, some of the specifics and ideas are not. It feels like Nelson is giving you her thoughts and it’s up to you to consider them and develop them. I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, but I mostly liked that you have to do the work yourself as the reader.

This is a great read for digging deep into notions of gender, identity, love, and parenthood. Not just Maggie Nelson’s views, but also considering your own. I think it’s going to be an interesting one to re-read.

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