Book Babble #1 – A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

★★★★★

I first happened upon A Little Life whilst tidying the shelves at Book Cycle. I had only just finished A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, so I can only assume Japanese names were fresh in my mind. It was tucked away in the unloved ‘X, Y & Z’ section (which was made up of about 75% Zusak and 15% Zweig), and I only really noticed it because I’d never seen it there before. It was thicker than most books, and the cover was nice and bold but nothing special – nothing like the wonderful use of ‘Orgasmic Man’ by Peter Hujar that the hardback version has. The blurb on the back didn’t give me much information, either – all I knew was that it involved a group of university students. I figured I’d give it a go; the book was free, after all.

After doing some research I was surprised to learn I had apparently been living under a rock and this book had been immensely popular, despite its length. However, I soon realised, this book had a serious case of Marmite: either you loved it or hated it. I watched a couple of vague reviews, one woman damning it to Hell and the other tearing up as she described its beauty. Typically, I’m on the more cynical, critical side of the argument, so I began reading A Little Life with slightly low expectations.

In short, A Little Life is about four friends who meet at university – Malcolm, an architect, JB, an artist, Willem, an actor and Jude, a lawyer. It follows their lives from their twenties to their fifties. I can’t say much more. Things started off slow at first. I was interested, but how could I be invested? I wasn’t sure of the writing style or the dialogue to begin with, and nothing instantly grabbed my attention. I liked it, but didn’t dedicate much time to it. I flipped through pages absent-mindedly whilst eating my lunch, not expecting much. The characters were cute, some of it was witty, whatever.

And then suddenly the book developed an endless tunnel of layers. The further I sunk into its pages, the more the writing style and the characters began to resonate with me. It was very much, in that sense, like peeling an onion when you’re ravenously hungry and you have a delicious onion omelette planned, for lack of a better analogy. And yes, onions make you cry. The more I read this book, the stronger my connection with the characters grew. It is very much a character-driven novel, so, of course, that’s crucial.  This is in no way a light-hearted book. Don’t let the first few pages fool you (despite the fantastic hints dropped throughout the first chapters). It tackles exceptionally difficult topics – sexual abuse, self harm and domestic violence to name a few – and although the writing is not graphic, per se, it sugarcoats nothing.

This book became almost an obsession. As soon as I found myself with a free period at college, I’d practically sprint to the library and start reading it. An hour was never enough, and I’d often find myself finally dragging myself out of the world of A Little Life to find my next lesson had started ten minutes ago. I had not had such a fixation with a book for a long, long time. The last lines I’d read were constantly whirring in my mind, and I thought of its characters so fondly that one might mistake them for my close friends. There was one instance, I recall, when I had to climb a flight of stairs and thought to myself, “This is ridiculous! I can’t climb those; my legs won’t be able to manage it. Why isn’t there a lift?” You see, one of the characters, Jude, has quite severe leg injuries and struggles greatly with walking and climbing long distances. A Little Life had taken over mine.

I cried whilst reading this book five times. I have never cried whilst reading a book before, and the only movie that made me cry was Donnie Darko. I love books, but I’m not a very emotional person when it comes to entertainment. Several parts made me cry, and I had to stop reading whilst I ate my lunch because I couldn’t even breathe properly. I sobbed, totally and completely, at one part of the book and also at the end – simply because it had finished. How could something I love so much end? It was a loss of life, a loss of a limb. I raced through this book and all its 700+ pages, but berated myself for doing so. It was impossible not to inhale the whole thing, but I wished I had the willpower to savour it.

Most of the criticisms for this book revolve around the fact that it’s too unrealistic both in its positive and negative experiences. For example, some characters suffer unimaginable trauma, but some are impossibly successful. I see this as a conscious decision. This is a work of fiction. The highs and lows are taken to the extreme – it’s almost as if it’s a study on what the human body and mind can endure. And I thought this was a good thing. Others have also off-handedly referred to this as “torture porn” and perhaps the descriptions of abuse will be difficult for some readers to deal with, but despite some scenes being very hard to read, it’s not an unpleasant book. This book has a central, overwhelmingly positive theme, and that is friendship.

I had to give this five stars in my head as it’s had such a strong impact on me. I want to talk about it so much more, but it’s difficult to discuss without spoiling things. I urge anyone to read it, however. I always give it its own special shelf at Book Cycle when it pops up every so often. Everyone deserves a chance to read this novel.

The Vegetarian Stereotype

“Oh, God, don’t be one of those vegetarians.”

The vegetarian I’m being right now. God forbid, I’m talking about my diet!

My parents were vegetarians, so, naturally, they raised me on a vegetarian diet. My mum got an earful about this before she even gave birth; didn’t she know she was putting me at risk by having a meat and fish-free diet during her pregnancy? Didn’t she know the nutrients gained from meat and fish were essential for my health? My mum had a fantastic diet and exercised a lot during her pregnancy, and, voila, I popped out healthy and almost muscular. I wasn’t in the slightest weaker than other babies. And nor did I develop some kind of animal instinct for meat, since many people believe we’re supposed to be eating meat. I liked my meat-free diet. When I was old enough, my parents sat me down, explained vegetarianism, and told me I was allowed to eat meat if I so wished, but they wouldn’t cook it. Of course I didn’t want to!

Once, in nursery, a trainee staff member was handing out sandwiches at lunch. They were ham.

“I don’t eat meat,” I told her.

She laughed and told her colleague I wasn’t eating my sandwich. Her colleague told her to just give me it and I’d stop being so fussy. So the trainee put the ham sandwich on my plate, and I sat through lunch with nothing to eat. When it was time to play again, she scolded me for not eating my food. What a fussy little girl I was. Why wouldn’t I eat meat like everyone else in the room?

At primary school, it wasn’t long before other kids noticed I didn’t eat meat. I was the only vegetarian in my year group, so I ended up getting my own personal Quorn sausage roll at lunchtime. I’d refuse sweets that I knew had gelatine in them – this made me an ultra-freak.

“Why can’t you eat meat? Are you allergic?” a boy asked at lunch.

“No, I’m vegetarian.”

“Why are you eating chocolate, then?”

“It doesn’t have any meat in it.”

“Doesn’t it have milk in it?”

“I drink milk!”

(I don’t anymore.)

One lunchtime, I was eating my dinners at a table when a boy flung a piece of ham into my sandwich. I couldn’t eat it. They found it hilarious; it became their new game. They would try and slip pieces of fish into my meals or throw meat into my lunchbox and my bag and my hair. Another lunchtime, they threw slices of ham into a bin and tried to force my head inside so I’d eat it.

I almost had a discussion once – my friend was asking me about vegetarianism in ICT and I pulled up a video of animal slaughter to show them my reasons. The teacher promptly shut my computer off and said I wasn’t to click on such things again. Another time, my friend was asking what his sausages were made of. I said they were made of pigs. He didn’t understand how that could be. I said they killed the pigs and ground them up to make the sausage – then his mother swooped in and told me not to tell such horrid stories. Rather than telling their children what went into their food, parents and teachers were trying to protect them from the truth. To children, chicken burgers are and have always been in a box, never a farm.

In high school there were maybe two other vegetarians in my year group, and people were typically less judgemental. But it didn’t go away. Once, I took a brownie a classmate made for the class but after learning it had marshmallows in it I gave it back – I explained marshmallows were made from gelatine, and I was a vegetarian. Just so I didn’t hurt her feelings. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to eat it, it was that I couldn’t. And then:

“You always known when there’s a vegetarian in the room,” muttered a boy at the back.

Never once have I watched someone eat a beef burger and then start preaching like a Jehovah’s Witness. If someone wants to discuss vegetarianism with me, I’ll discuss it. Yet vegetarians are still treated like criminals. I do wonder if it’s insecurity these people who say, “Vegetarians were the villagers who couldn’t hunt” etc feel, or even guilt. Do you want my opinion? I assume so as you’re reading this – they should feel guilty. It’s reasonable to feel guilty. But I don’t go around telling people this.

Vegetarianism is something I’m passionate about, though. I still make general posts about sparing chickens and turkeys around Christmas times. I still repost vegetarian recipes and diet plans around January to inspire people to make a change. But I certainly don’t attack anyone. It wouldn’t work, anyway. Telling people eating meat is bad always receives the response, “I’m going to eat a hamburger because you said that,” or, “But bacon!”. I can appreciate this – telling anyone what to do often makes them want to do the opposite – but what I don’t appreciate is unwarranted abuse.

In my hometown, the community is quite narrow-minded. Right-wing, Leave voters, yada yada. Also, we are well known for pies, and these often contain meat. A group of vegan activists stood in the town centre with a few stalls offering information about veganism and a sign that said, “Ask about veganism today!”. That was it. They didn’t approach anyone. They didn’t say, “Go vegan now or we’ll gut you!”. They offered a discussion. Naturally, on the local newspaper comment section, the locals screamed bloody murder – vegans were coming here to radicalise us, to shove their ideas down our throats! I love my bacon and black pudding! It was absolutely ludicrous.

I can talk about vegetarianism all day. I’ll make a post soon explaining my reasons. But I’m not telling anyone what to do. If you truly believe someone expressing an opinion is trying to control you, you have a lot of insecurities to work through. A lifestyle shouldn’t be a threat. I can empathise with meat eaters. I don’t think they’re all murderers and idiots. But saying vegans and vegetarians never shut up about their diets is the norm.

Book Cycle

Every Sunday lunchtime I take a ten minute walk through the neighbourhood to get to Book Cycle, where I volunteer for a couple of hours. It’s a local bookshop, but nothing like Waterstones. The clue’s in the name!

book-cycle-beech-hill-2

I refer to Book Cycle as a bookshop but, strictly speaking, it isn’t. Let me explain:

  • The books inside Book Cycle have been donated to us. Either from locals, schools or even the BBC, all of these books are given to us and my job as a volunteer is to put them on the shelves. If they’re not in good condition, we send them off to be recycled.
  • ‘Customers’ can take three books a day, and they essentially decide the price. Technically, it’s a donation – some people pay us 20p, some £5, and some don’t have any money at all.
  • Certain children’s books and information books are packed and sent off to schools in Africa – Book Cycle is a charity, too!

Any book-lover would be delighted at the sound of this. Before I was a volunteer, I was a ‘customer’, and visiting Book Cycle has always been a treat. The shelves are constantly restocked and cycled and I’ve found some great books there – A Little Life, A Tale For The Time Being, Slaughterhouse 5, Farewell to Arms, and even some rare poetry collections – and, of course, no book goes to waste.

I won’t lie – I’m definitely not a fan of Kindles. To be honest, I’m anti-ebooks altogether. To me, a book should be an object, something you can hold and flick and smell and just feel. A file on a mobile device? That’s not a book, that’s text. We often receive donations in great bulks, as if people are clearing out their shelves and lofts and finally storing their library on a tablet. Half of the people who enter Book Cycle see it as a dumping ground; the other half, paradise.

Book Cycle originally began locally with just a couple of shops but it is now beginning to spread worldwide. Its founder was inspired to create these bookshops after they found a load of old books tossed away in a skip. Most of the shops are old, unused libraries and the like that volunteers restore in their own efforts. Donating books to charity shops is fine until you have three boxes worth – the people are likely to shove them in the tip. But at Book Cycle, all books are put to good use, and don’t just benefit the local community but also the schools in Africa.

I think Book Cycles would be beneficial all across the world. If you love books and hate seeing them tossed away and unloved, creating your own Book Cycle could do your community wonders. Our volunteers are all dedicated and diligent and we also put on events to raise money – not a single Book Cycle member is paid. A bookshop where you choose the price? I can’t think of anything better.

Embarrassing Moments

This is my own version of a piece by Megan Boyle that I had to do in class.

Auditioned to be an angel in the school nativity. Ended up as the ‘innkeeper’s wife’. I had literally no  dialogue but the second I walked on stage I started bawling and had to be carried off. The teacher gave me a digestive biscuit and I stopped crying.
(age 5)

Saw my first ever Chinese person and shouted, “Look, it’s Jackie Chan!”
(age 6)

Told my mates I was half-French and had eaten snails before. Found a garden snail and licked it to prove it. They ran away screaming.
(age 7)

My class prepared for Let’s Sing for months and when we finally performed our cover of ‘Viva La Vida’ my mum had to rush over to the stage because I was clearly about to faint. I didn’t get a digestive biscuit that time.
(age 8)

Spilled a glass of milk over the table at M&S and felt like such a failure that I started crying.
The waitress who was mopping it up said, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
(age 9)

A girl tried to drag me off the climbing frame in the playground and pulled my trousers down in the process. I managed to kick her in the face and make her nose bleed, though, so we ended up even.
(age 10)

One of the girls on my netball team got hit in the face by the ball and I started giggling.
girl: Why are you laughing?
me: The ball just whacked her in the face.
girl: Oh, so you think her getting hit in the face is funny?
me: Well, yeah.
She chucked the ball at my head and I went flying.
(age 11)

I got a pixie cut and proudly waltzed into a new class. The teacher called me a “young man”.
(age 12)

A boy at school asked me out on a date but I genuinely thought he just wanted to get pizza, platonically, and said yes. He proceeded to tell everyone we were going out so I had to tell everyone we weren’t. He promptly blocked me on Facebook.
(age 13)

I let my English teacher borrow my copy of Grasshopper Jungle because her son wanted to read it. She returned it the next day after skimming through it and said very loudly that it was highly sexual and graphic and she didn’t think neither I nor her son should be reading it. She also recommended me ‘The Chocolate War’ that same month.
(age 14)

A seemingly random fifty-year-old bloke stopped me on my way to school and asked me if I was a student and if I lived nearby. I wasn’t sure if he was going to kidnap me or not so I sprinted away mid-conversation.
My friend later came up to me and asked me why I’d ran away from her dad.
(age 15)

Wrote a mess of an email at 2AM telling my ex-favourite author why his new book was terrible and how disappointed I was in him. Thought I’d hit ‘delete’ but I’d hit ‘send’. He posted a passive-aggressive Tweet the next day about ‘haters’.
(age 16)

Emojis – The Ultimate Form of Mitigation?

When I first got my hands on an iPhone, I was vehemently against using emojis. I didn’t dare open the little tray of endless yellow faces and cartoon animals. Yet every year their creators persisted in pumping out even more versions and extensions of the little bastards. At least 80% of my friends used them on a regular basis, and even my mum had started texting them to me. Before that, we’d just added little x’s on the end of our texts – British kisses. Even I was guilty of that. It was just a form of politeness. Right?

Then, one day, I found myself in a very difficult situation: I had to text a classmate, who had said maybe five words in total to me, and ask them where our next lesson was taking place. I didn’t know them well enough to add a kiss on the end, as carelessly as I gave them out, but I just couldn’t make my text sound friendly enough. I tried:

We’re in B12 today, right?

And then:

Hey, do you know if we’re in B12 today?

And then:

Hey! Sorry to bother you – I just wanted to check if we’re in B12 today? Thanks!

But none of them sounded right. The first was too impolite, the third too over-the-top, and the middle casual enough – but it was missing something. And, as if pulled by some kind of overpowering magnetic force that I was unable to resist, my finger went straight for that little emoji tray. Without thinking, I jabbed at this cheery, rosy-cheeked thing –

83013472701ce476a4e9e6401a6058ad

– and hit ‘send’. I felt panicked for a moment. What had I done? What had come over me? What if the person I’d sent the grinning little rotter to had as much of a loathing for these modern hieroglyphics as me? I began to hurriedly Google for a way to delete texts before the recipient got a chance to lay eyes on them, but as soon as I started searching, they sent their reply:

yeah we’re in B16

And on the end of it?

white-smiling-face

Think about what the text they’d sent would sound like if the emoji was missing. It would be a bit curt, wouldn’t it? But a simple smiley face softens the blow tremendously. Before emojis became so mainstream, a way of avoiding these curt responses would be the absence of punctuation. A full stop on the end of a sentence can instantly change its tone to one of unfriendliness. Just look at how people reacted to Instagram’s introduction of our most-hated punctuation mark. But adding an emoji, in this sense, is like adding punctuation – only it creates the opposite effect. Humans are simply afraid of appearing impolite. Texting may be instant, but you can rewrite a text over and over before you send it, unlike when you’re in a face-to-face conversation. We tend to be a bit more carefree when texting our friends, but how about distant classmates and crushes? We’ve got rid of the full stop, but now even that’s not polite enough. Thus, the emoji takes its place.

After this life-changing event, I began to use emojis more and more. I was entering more situations and encountering more online relationships that required the use of (tasteful) emojis. An exclamation mark seems too over-excited? Replace it with a series of sparkling stars. A light-hearted complaint sounds too woe-is-me? Stick a crying emoji on the end. Adding a simple heart on the end of a passive aggressive message can add humour, regardless of how much fury you’re feeling. These little yellow faces can make everything feel… Well, a little less in your face.

Emojis are designed to represent emotions. I mean, it’s in the name. But if anything, they’ve become a way to disguise emotion. Akin to the likes of typing ‘lol’ when you didn’t let out so much as a smirk at someone’s joke, emojis can make it appear as if you’re this optimistic, unfazed saint who isn’t bothered by the slightest thing. I mean, that’s what you all think about me, right? In fact, I don’t think I can go back to my emojiless days now I’ve started. Granted, I only inflict them upon those who return them, but they’ve made texting a whole lot less stressful. If you’re anything like me, you tend to overanalyse people’s texts and comments, and since emojis are evidently so powerful at setting a tone, they’ve become a bit of a shortcut when editing your use of punctuation.

That’s not to say I’ll be buying emoji slippers or car fresheners anytime soon, though.

A Blog Post About Blogging

I recently stumbled upon a blog I made when I was 11, almost six years ago, where I introduced myself with a “Salut!” (and swiftly explained I couldn’t speak French), made a rant about footballers being paid too much when there are far more deserving careers out there (although that’s a viewpoint I stand by to this day), and, I can only assume, promptly gave up on the idea and moved onto something more interesting like mashing all my sticks of plasticine into one squishy grey ball.

Since then, I’ve kept most of my thoughts to my journal, save a few comments on YouTube videos and Reddit articles here and there. Those tend to be anonymous, though. Something about blogging is a bit scary, and not in a big-empty-expanse-of-white way that I often experience when writing on paper. It’s a bit like spilling out personal thoughts on a lovely big stage but you’ve got no audience. Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re my audience, but I’ve no idea where you’ve come from unless you’ve been doing some Googling (don’t worry, I do that too!). At least with a journal, I know I’m writing those thoughts for me. I don’t expect anyone to read them. But these blog posts are, technically, being published. And isn’t every writer both excited to be but terrified of being published?

(Note that I use the term ‘writer’ very loosely; I once won an award in primary school for writing a letter of complaint about finding dog saliva in a packet of sweets.)

But I have a lot to say most of the time, and since I’m not very good at spitting it all out in real-life/significant situations, my best bet is spitting it out onto a blog. And here we are! I think the most important thing to remember is that I shouldn’t give a toss if someone reads this or not – getting it down and posting it is the main part, and responses are just an added bonus, provided they don’t hurl abuse at me. But even that would prove they’ve read what I have to say, so, I suppose, I’m ultimately the real winner here!

A few people have said I’d probably enjoy doing a blog, but I’ve never actually considered it myself. I write a lot – stories, mostly – but never publish or submit them anywhere, leaving them to lie around like the empty cartons of chocolate soya milk that are currently littered around my bedroom. I have thirty notebooks on my shelves that are ‘in use’, and three Ikea drawers literally filled with ‘dormant’ notebooks, so that should give you an idea of my track record in writing and finishing my stories. However, I can’t exactly post a half-finished blog on here, so maybe this is for me. We’ll see, won’t we?