The reason everyone is baking banana bread right now

Everyone is baking banana bread at the moment. This may appear surprising- after all, its widespread allure is not immediately apparent. However, given the history of banana bread as the food of the Great Depression, perhaps we are all simply following the trends of our ancestors nearly a century ago.

During that time, housewives had not wanted to waste bananas, especially when they were so expensive, and so made this treat. It has been widely accepted now that with the sudden closure of businesses, and with even online transactions limited, the world is now tumbling into recession, if not yet depression. However many days into self-isolation you are, by this point the Big Shop you did (without stockpiling, of course) at the start of quarantine has begun to be depleted, and the bananas you bought have started to brown. Alongside the financial difficulties many are starting to face at the moment, to start to save products such as bananas is probably a wise idea.

Another reason why banana bread rose to popularity around the 1930s is because baking soda/power manufacturers were becoming widely available, inspiring cookbook writers. Amongst the many things that keep me up at night, the reason why it is called banana bread has frequently troubled me. It’s called a bread, but I have never seen anyone put any savoury items, like marmite, on it, and it is too sugary to really require any layering of honey or jam. Occasionally it has been toasted and buttered, but that feels like an unusual way to present such a food. It is too dense to have the texture of a cake sponge, but is not a sandwich bread. You will relieved to learn that its origins lie in the fact that it was marketed as a banana “quick bread”, because of the baking powder, rather than yeast bread, with its hours of proving.

Alongside the need to save bananas, we have reached a point in quarantine where people maybe will start to want to be creative, and baking is the perfect form of that self-expression. It is less taxing than creative writing, and requires much less preparation than photo shoots, as well as being less frustrating than painting. Admittedly to achieve a final product which is gratifying from those mediums requires considerable time: banana bread does not. In 60 minutes one can go from conception to perfection on a plate.

Another beautiful thing about banana bread is that it is so versatile. You can have it plaim in all its glory: the saviour of sports day, the king of rainy days. Nigella herself has made one, and it looks just as fabulous as one can expect.



What is an absolute abomination is courgette banana bread, or “zucchini banana bread”. No one is making banana bread expecting it to be healthy; there is an ungodly amount of sugar and butter in there to go anywhere near an Instagram fitness influencer with their notions of “health”. So to pollute it with such a vegetable is uncalled for:



The creator of this version remarks that “it’s practically a salad” with “pretty flecks of green and orange”. First of all, that recipe has an entire cup of sugar in it, which would not be problematic, except that no self-respecting salad should have that ingredient. Secondly, nobody wants to see green spots in their banana bread; it normally signals that there is mould. People are not looking for a meal replacement in their banana bread- so do not try to make it healthy. Let desserts be desserts!

Then there is the cinnamon-bun banana bread, a concept which as an avid consumer of both is mildly offensive, since two mighty forces should never meet for fear of weakening the potency of both parties.

Another member of the banana bread family is the Browned Butter Maple Banana Bread: I found this recipe on Olive and Artisan, and it looks like the perfect way to trigger a heart attack.

brown butterIn an age where we are all told to accept ourselves, this bread has accepted its super-sugary nature, and embraced it. That is what we like to see, in ourselves and our food.


Then there is bacon banana bread.

bacon banana bread

This version, from Around My Table, is upsetting. First of all, why would anyone add bacon. Courgette is awful enough, but bacon- bacon is just so wrong. It is not a “health” food, so cannot be justified for that reason. It does not even taste good with bananas. One should not tamper with the original formula unless there is a good reason, and this is not it. Quarantine and self-isolation may be taking its toll on people psychologically, but if you are baking this kind of creation, you should examine yourself very carefully. What is even more distressing is it contains:

  • 1 box yellow cake mix (or 2 boxes GF yellow cake mix)
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 ripe bananas *
  • 8 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled

This is too much. BANANA BREAD IS NOT HARD TO MAKE. There is no need to use “yellow” cake mix. I understand that not everybody has the time or resources to make banana bread themselves. I completely understand that. But this is a cookery website, and how am I meant to take this person seriously if they cannot even add flour, sugar and oil eggs together themselves instead of buying it in a package?

Finally, I mentioned earlier that the original banana bread should be altered with caution. In this instance, it is completely worth it to add chocolate chips. Chocolate chip banana bread is delightful. Perfect picnic-worthy material. Unbeatable. As long as the chips haven’t sunk downwards, but have an even-spread throughout- lest there be a soggy bottom- life is good.

soggy bottom


So, by all means, make banana bread at this uncertain time, but remember to experiment with care.

Joe Exotic is not as ‘exotic’ as you think

Alongside self-isolation has come the need for self-entertainment, pre-dominantly in the form of watching Tiger King. The documentary series is as shocking and sensationalist as one would expect from Netflix, being not so much the “Blackfish” version of the big cat private trade, but more an exposé of its ringleaders’ private-lives. What doesn’t attract views like murder, polygamy and drug-cartels?

The outlandish nature of these figures, and the world of owning tigers and monkeys as pets, has been presented as occurring mainly in the United States. But the UK has 9 pumas, 8 leopards, 13 tigers and 115 lemurs in private ownership, as approved by local councils. Given the wide variety of these animals, and the small size of the UK, there is probably one near you at the moment. Those lemurs are unlikely to be living in a fantasy jungle carved partially into the mountainside of the Pennines, and are most likely to be in a living room in Essex. The people who we see on Tiger King caressing monkeys- in a way almost as disturbing as dog-owners with their pets- exist amongst on us, somewhere.

The BBC also reported the presence, as of 2016, of 145 ostriches. Far be it from me to criticise someone for their choice of pet, if they are not being breed for meat or eggs, but this just seems bizarre. Being sizeable birds, which can easily turn aggressive, and are not particularly attractive, it begs the question whether one or two people have an ostrich obsession in Scotland, or if there are many closeted fanatics with one on their Manchester or Bristol terraces.

One explanation for the great ostrich numbers could be the ‘Golden Farm‘, which by looking at their website, appears to be an incredibly odd place. Amongst their various products, they sell ostrich eggs to be hatched for £35 and day-old chicks for only £75. There appears to be no vetting process proposed by this website, and what is even more concerning is that they claim “we can supply one day old chicks only during spring-summer season“. Although this may appear pedantic, the window of time for a chick to be one day old is quite brief, meaning there must be constant hatching for the 6 month period. Most of them are presumably unwanted, which begs the question of what happens to them afterwards, especially if they are male and therefore cannot lay lucrative eggs. Not all of them can be grown for meat. Indeed, the conditions of the existing birds look miserable enough; a picture the farm posted on its own website testifies as much:


Of course it could be much worse, but for animals which can be 150kg and grow up to 2.7 metres tall, accustomed to live in “the dry, hot savannas and woodlands of Africa“, this hardly looks like a satisfactory emulation of the scope or setting of their natural habitat. What is even more suspicious is that you cannot easily contact them. There is no address for the Farm on the website, despite numerous invitations littered throughout to visit, and the address provided for their office appears false; it is on the corner of a roundabout in Slough, and a Google Maps survey illustrates there are no buildings nearby which immediately appear appropriate to match the description. It is very strange.

The final reason why the news of the United Kingdom’s exotic pet ownership is so unsettling is because there are going to be more kept in private properties without the councils’ permission. Again, as various animal protection advertisements and television series have illustrated, it is incredibly easy -although vastly cruel and unpleasant- to keep wild animals in inappropriately small spaces. If the pets were acquired through dubious means, then there is even more of an incentive not to inform anyone of their presence.

Learning that there are 13 tigers in England is distressing even though the local council has certified that the animals are living in “suitable” conditions and that there are “safety measures” in place to prevent escape. But what does the respective council deem to be “appropriate”, since nothing will match the many square miles that they would roam in the wild. These councils are not experts in exotic animal care…

Equally, where these tigers are coming from is another cause for concern. It is not like they rescued a native tiger from the edge of a motorway- it must have been brought into the country specifically, and since no self-respecting zoo or wildlife reserve would ship an endangered species to a private owner, they most likely come from the black-market. So that their ownership is accepted by these governmental areas of local authority again is concerning.

It appears that in the excitement and glamour of Tiger King’s fast-paced worldwe have overlooked the potentially terrible exotic animal ownership which could be right on our doorsteps. Of course, since we cannot visit our neighbours now to peer into their gardens, we just won’t know- at least, not for the time being.

Why Instagram Poetry should be banned

Poetry is a wonderful thing: from the dust of letters it constructs an image -even if it’s only seen for a flash- that is unparalleled by normal prose. Maybe it is the way that rhythm functions, or how metre creates a skeleton for the meaning to skid from word to word. Or perhaps it is the freedom of blank verse- the way words are dashed onto the page, liberated from grammatical judgement.

However, poetry is not so wonderful when it is displayed on Instagram.

Judging by aesthetics, one might be fooled into thinking that the time spent on presentation was also mirrored in the writing process. How innocent you would be.

Evidently, all one needs for a successful poem is your musing type-written onto artisanal paper, often with a jaunty flower on the side or expressive doodle.

Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 10.19.32

Now I would hardly say that the imagery or sentiment created by this little message by Hayley MacLeod here is particularly artfully done, or indeed moving at all. I would whip out the violin and throw roses in despair, not at the poem’s words, but in despair of how low the standards are becoming- but it seems like half the job is already done.

The problem with Instagram-poetry is that it is not poetry at all. It is simply a mixture of emotions vomited onto a page, and not even a pretty background can hide that.

It is quickly evident when one starts scrolling through the Instagram pages that it does not take much to become a “poet”. You simply need to






Tears, applause and adulation will ensue, I promise you. This post by the (deep breath) famous Rupi Kaur received 351,000 likes. Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 10.26.10

In light of this, it is absolutely devastating to think that laudable young poets, such as the winners of the Foyle Award, will be overlooked, struggling to sell copies of their work despite their enormous talent, when people walk around reading this absolute travesty instead. Kaur’s work is pitiful. No wonder she can churn out books so quickly, all she has to do is think of a neat sentence, press the space button a few times and voila. But what is more distasteful is how many people buy into her work. She has 3.6 million followers. And they all think of themselves as indulging in literature on their hourly Instagram scroll, when really the truth is far from it.

The real problem is that people think this is proper literature

Do you even know who your national poetry laureate is anymore? They used to be important; have a status of sorts. Now…not so much, and the reigning problem is that people think that content like this

Screenshot 2019-04-20 at 10.23.55

is of a high poetic standard. That this “Greison Crow” is like a cooler, more hip, 21st Century Keats. NO. You do not get cooler than writing about Autumn which such deftness that even GCSE students weep. (Some of them. The decent ones.)

When discussing this topic, one of my friends said that this Insta-poetry could be a “gate-way drug”

They start on this lighter content and move onto more literary ground once they’ve found their feet. This is simply a naïve perspective. People view this poetry in passing, whilst on their feed, and then think no more about it. It is not like they are in the library, and are about to take out another tome by Sugercoat-my-Heart and then change their minds and pick Plath instead. I wish. No, the medium is the message. But, on the topic of books, something worse has happened.

Actually, they have infiltrated our bookshelves

Netgalley has given me two advanced reading copies of two so-called poets. One was called “Between You and These Bones” by F.D Soul. The “F.D” stands for “Feathered Down” (all you need to know really). One of the poems in there was called A VOW:

“I promise

you will not always be this war.”


Another favourite poem of mine was A NOTE FROM BOOK ONE:

“Thank God for the stubbornness

of organs.”

WOWEE. That really deserved a fat publishing deal did it not. I feel touched by an inordinate sense of distaste. Yes, having organs which regenerate and are resistant to disease is great. But this is not a fact which deserves to be indented in your book, Ms. F.D Soul. Another ARC was Nocturnal by Wilder and in short those poems were broadly the same except a bit longer and with references to the sea and the sky and sunsets and probably dolphins too, who knows at this point. At least the formatting was visually appealing. Full marks for effort. But from all this we can take away one thing. We are in an epidemic. Like the opposite of a poetry Golden Era. A Black Era, perhaps. Because now words mean nothing. They are tabbed and put intp nice font, but cumulatively they just carry no sentiment whatsoever, wistfully referring to “you”, their lost boyfriend, how they carried you in their heart but you were too heavy….

So, in short, Instagram Poetry really should be banned, for everyone’s sake.


LANNY by Max Porter


Photograph: Amazon

Second books, much like second albums, can be tricky to create. And if your first piece won a bouquet of prizes, including the Sunday Times Writer of the Year and the International Dylan Thomas Prize, then it’s difficult to imagine how one would even get started. Yet, Porter did start, and his new novel Lanny, is wondrous and mysterious.

In many ways the novel seems like a fable, with the opening passage told by the spirit of the English countryside, Dead Papa Toothwort. Brooding and plotting, he seems far from those fairies we see frolicing around the pages of Enid Blyton; this character instead slithers throughout his land, listening in on the conversations of others and flitting in and out of the bodies of woodland creatures. The way these conversations manifest themselves on paper is a little jarring at first, or at least tacky in a sense. It seems somewhat reminiscent of primary-school books to have the font swirling around the page, although soon it melds into normality and it seems more appropriate for the context.

Photograph: Faber & Faber

After several instances of meeting these interjections however, it does become apparent that these overheard snippets, whilst well-written and fascinating, are however mainly irrelevant to the plot (the only somewhat useful snippet in the excerpt above would be “trust him with your kid”, as readers will know, and yet that hardly illuminates the plot anymore than if it hadn’t been read at all). So, in terms of being a plot device, although it is interesting and inventive, I tended to skip over it in the latter part of the book simply because it didn’t seem that useful.

But back to Toothwort,  he (or it,) has this bond with a small boy in a village, a boy whom everyone finds a little strange, a little queer, a little dazed, perhaps: Lanny. And so the novel, told through multiple perspectives, chronicles the life of Lanny as he starts to take outdoor art lessons with a famous artist from the village, and the way that relationship pans out. The multiple points of view interestingly became less distinct from each other as the book wore on: at the start of the novel Lanny’s mum had her perspective recounted in verse and then (for a reason I cannot find, but if you can please let me know) she starts to think in prose like the others characters. The same can be said for the others- they all seemed to blend into one after a while, aside from a few idiosyncratic remarks.

But what makes Lanny such an impactful read is something else; it’s the portrayal of outsiders. Both Lanny and the artist, Pete, are essentially alone. They are misunderstood and shunned by others in the isolated village community, and it is the way as the book progresses that they are peeled apart and broken down in their individual ways which is so touching. This of course resonates with a contemporary audience because who doesn’t feel alone in a world where relationships are strengthened by talking through devices, whilst sitting in a room on your own? There is a sense of loneliness in all of us, and Porter truly does tap into that with his mythic, rustic tale.

normal people// march

Missing something?

Are you looking for:

  1. a character study: a curtain held aside, revealing the intricate little world of two people. No guns, no high stakes, just people living and the tragedy that ensues, as it may ensue with all of us, if only time will tell.
  2. people with deep character flaws, because the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, have many. An abundance, in fact. It is hard not to like them, though, because that is reality. No one is just a piece of a glass, we are all scratched in some way.
  3. the effects of the end of the Celtic Tiger subtly discussed
  4. something which spans the youth of the pair, following them from sixth form into adulthood, and chronicles how the relationship between the two develops.
  5. irish scenery and dublin to feature heavily
  6. a narrative which discusses troubling issues, such as suicide, sexual assault, domestic abuse and drug use
  7. an elegant writing style, but no speech marks for the dialogue
  8. something that will be a relatively quick read
  9. a book that was on the Man Booker 2018 Longlist
  10. a book which will not affirm your life. Because it won’t. It will depress you but you will not stop reading because something in you wants to see where the shrapnel will fall.

If you have answered yes to any of the above, then I prescribe to you: Normal People by Sally Rooney.

All that remains

Prof. Black herself


No, Death. Something important: something looming in our faces, seen in every billboard and every smile. The flesh and the bones just waiting to turn to dust, the faces slowly decaying away until they are nothing but dirt.

But there is a way past that: to see death and dying as a life process, a simple flicking of the switch of morality, instead of the emotional wreck that it really can be. All this can be achieved, or at least the journey begun, with a reading of Professor Sue Black’s book All That Remains. It has the remarkable ability of talking about death without being awfully morbid- it being through the lens of one of the world’s best anatomist and forensic anthropologist. She is writing from a wealth actual of experiences spanning from war crimes in Kosovo, trying to identify the bodies of the dead, her job lecturing at Edinburgh University to leading high profile court cases. So when she writes about her interactions with death, you know that she has a lot to offer, and in some cases things which rarely have been seen outside horror stories. Indeed, Black shines a light onto how something as simple as a bone can reveal a multitude: someone’s diet, age and weight, and she speaks candidly about her work with cadavers and how crucial they were to developing her own understanding of her profession as a student. In fact, after having read this book, it will seem almost impossible not to want to donate your own body to science, given how eloquently she puts forward the sheer usefulness it offers.

Of course, this book does cover sensitive issues, death being a taboo subject in Western society and all, but seeing as Professor Black offers an ideal balance tonally between scientific and emotional, nothing jarrs. Yes, it is hard to describe a book which is so unique in its approach and subject, but in short, if you had ever had a question about death, or felt somewhat uncomfortable about it, then this should help put you at ease, fascinate, and even delight you.

Angie Thomas: a modern day revolutionary?

Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, has fundamentally changed the YA literary genre. Following in the footsteps of many LGBT works, Thomas has proved that this type of fiction can also be an excellent way to provoke conversations concerning gun violence and race, even if parts of her novel are fundamentally flawed and undermine her main message.

Thomas tells the story of Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who is caught between two realities: that of her privileged  white school, and of her home life in a predominantly black, poorer neighbourhood. Thomas herself had a similar upbringing, in many respects, but shockingly could even relate to the aspect of the novel where Starr’s friend, Khalil, gets needlessly killed by a policeman after being pulled over. This is the crux of the novel: the aftermath of the tragic shooting on Starr’s life, amidst the underlying tension between her two lives, and of Starr’s progression from fear to finding a way to use her platform and try to take action on behalf of Khalil and everything that his death represented.

The obvious merit of this novel is that it presented racial inequality in America in a way which is easily digested. News stories are often very blandly, despite their shocking content, because of the lack of a strong narrative element and due to the monotonous language used to describe momentous events. Thomas, however, of course allows for some characterisation, and offers a lens beyond the stereotypes that the media, failing to expand on headlines, has frequently perpetuated. Reading fiction about these kind of events allows the story to be understood in a way which is more relatable: the rich nature of the text, concerning Starr’s and Khalil’s personal lives, help to indicate that actually there is much more to them than simply victims of crime, something which contemporary protests against police shoots aim to achieve, but often not quite as effectively as Thomas seemingly has. Therefore from that perspective, Thomas’ work is revolutionary, seeing as many people still have -unconsciously or not- a racist mindset, and thus to read a book which forces them to empathise from another point of view is invaluable.

So the main message is strong. However, there were aspects of the book that I did not agree with, which can be difficult to admit because many people automatically equate that to disliking the sentiment of the book in general, which of course is not true. But the book is too long. The legal process is too drawn out in the book and paradoxically, despite the needless pages, there are underdeveloped character relationships. There is a lso a fractured friendship group, with a friend called Hayley becoming a racist throughout the novel, and yet this is hardly expanded upon, and Hayley is used more as a motify for  Starr’s personal ability to rise above societal hate than to be seen as an actual person. As for Chris, Starr’s white boyfriend, well there does seems to be racism concerning him:

“I kneel beside my dead friend in the middle of the street with my hands raised. A cop as white as Chris points a gun at me.

As white as Chris.”

This is a troubling quote, because what Thomas is doing here is creating a world which is basically black people versus white people. The focus of the policeman should not be his skin colour, and nor should his skin colour be equated to an emotion nor have negative connotations, as is implied in the excerpt above. Understandably there is institutional racism, but surely the focus of Thomas’ novel should be more on the failure of the justice system to condemn the police-officer, and not because the police-officer was white himself. More white people than black get killed by police officers every year,  TIME notes, and therefore this commentary on racial bias is not as pertinent as it may initially seem. If the focus had been tilted slightly to the law, then the message behind this book would have been much more appropriate.


“You’re black, okay?” I yell. “You’re black!”
“I’m black?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the f*ck’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything! You’re black, I’m white. You’re rich, I’m not.”

It sounds racist, doesn’t it. Very. This excerpt is from the book, but I actually just changed the words “black” and “white” around, because the whole point about racism is that it should not be tolerated towards anyone, regardless of history, because that is, after all, what equality means. But sometimes racism towards white people can be overlooked too. The real version, from the book, is here:

“You’re white, okay?” I yell. “You’re white!”
“I’m white?” he says, like he’s just hearing that for the first time. “What the f*ck’s that got to do with anything?”
“Everything! You’re white, I’m black. You’re rich, I’m not.”

The point that Thomas is trying to spread is one which promotes equality, and yet by having a protagonist with such views, she fundamentally undermines that message by having Starr refuse to talk to Chris on the basis of his race alone. This attitude is not crucial to the plot itself, so why she chooses to include this is baffling. What is more:

“I swear, I don’t understand white people.
Breadcrumbs on macaroni, kissing dogs on the mouth—”
“Treating their dogs like they’re their kids,” I add.
“Yeah!” says DeVante. “Purposely doing shit that could kill them, like bungee jumping.”
“Calling Target ‘Tar-jay,’ like that makes it fancier,” says Seven.
“F*ck,” Chris mutters. “That’s what my mom calls it.”
Seven and I bust out laughing.
“Saying dumb shit to their parents,” DeVante continues. “Splitting up in situations when they clearly need to stick together.”

Is this spreading the right message? No. What is worse, is that Chris seems to take these generalisations and run with them, and it seems ironic that Starr, a character who is supposed to develop into an icon of equality, is the one who perpetuates this rhetoric at the end of her developmental arc. It just seems inconsistent with what Thomas is trying to achieve, because racial equality applies to everyone.

In general, though, The Hate U Give is a worthy read, as it does have an important intent behind it. However, if you are interested in racism, then just read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book instead: it is factual, well-written, and absolutely fascinating.

Milkman, Burns// february

And here sits words, they together being both Milkman, and simultaneously number one prize winner in twenty-eighteen. It seems odd. Many have complained about their not-wanting-to-read-it feeling. ‘Challenging’ that it was: although the shiny pinkness it exuded might have made them feel safe, because that it was what they came to the pink book for, yes. That was my answer, and another answer is that perhaps the problem is not with the book, but with the readers’, the objectors’ literacy. Or their poor literacy. Not everything is limited to a monosyllabic nature, even if that is essential a twenty-first-century-mode-of-communication, headless of the need, or is it heedless, or is that the same thing now, that in real life people talk more and shout less than they do in that other place, the internet. Because, of course, there is still culture, somewhere in the world, although not in the maybe-hole-of-the-internet that everyone lives in now. The real question- the one we should be asking ourselves, and not only because asking questions is important, but because it allows us to feel like to have some autonomy in matters which really do not concern us, individuals- is will Author, the one who gave us the gift of difficulty and through Narrator reminded us that reading-while-walking is a dangerous activity, will Author be able to continue on her one long path down the halls of authors and poets who write Classics and become pictures of classical greatness. One good pink book is something, indeed, but another book in the same specific tone, about the sadness or the troubles or the difficulties in that warping nineteen seventies madness, and it could be jamais-vu. Today people might find tablets girl, a.k.a. girl who was really a woman, something to talk about, but if another maybe-boyfriend hoards superchargers in the same way but in another text, will the problems be limited to ‘over the water’ or will Author struggle to find her book land after the splash, quite a splash, that was made by this pink book? It is a good time to meet Milkman nonetheless. Well, no, it is never a good time to meet The Milkman, (not The Real Milkman, but) renouncer-in-state Milkman Milkman, because that is when Narrator becoming interesting. Becoming interesting is a problem. Eyes on you and beyond you, the rumours becoming truer than true and you sit here wondering well hell is this not our world, were those implicated for violences and celebrity rumours guilty of everything that they were told they deserved. Terrorism is a theme for today, being that people are terrorised today by everything because that is what they were taught, but not in the same way that people were taught not to be too sad if Somebody McSomebody’s brother’s head was in the road. And then there is being interesting, as aforementioned, but not in the way of flashing lights, also, either, but in the way that interesting manifests on trains and buses and lots of people pressed together and one single Milkman driving his white van alongside the road whilst you are reading-while-walking. Not having paragraphs is something strange, to be grappled with. Difficult it is, to be stopping, pulling away, because breaks are not clean and today we like a clean-break life, yes. Tell me, you like the clean-breaks but life is not like that, no, it is one long messy feed of pictures and noises and message you do not want to read but do because you are bored, and anyway: relevancy. Relevancy. We will read the pink book, winner of the big prize? Yes we will, reader-of-mine.

Was Hardy really a feminist?

In the past, I have not been the most enthusiastic reader of Thomas Hardy’s work. Having read Tess of the D’Urbervilles  for “fun” in the Summer, I had decided never to look at his work again, until, of course, I was set Far From The Madding Crowd as a text. Karma, thank you. The impression I was left with was not…great:  the heavy and somewhat pointless descriptions of landscape dominating the novel just did not enrapture me. But you know all this! The real question is- am I glad that I had to study this, in the end?

It is obvious that I would never have chosen Hardy to study, which as someone who is enthusiastic about English literature, is problematic. Not only is he an acclaimed (although not hugely by me) poet, (I studied Neutral Tones at GCSE) but he is also one of the most acclaimed Victorian writers. Just like Dickens and Steinbeck, he is one of those white men whose work one simply must read if they are to consider themselves learnèd. Or so that was the impression I have been given throughout my schooling (so far), and really it is the only impression that matters considering that this is the institution which sets you up for the sadly all-important exams. So it was a book unwelcomed to my psyche, being both pastoral and Victorian, but ultimately I learnt 2 lessons:

Lesson one: Hardy has an excellent use of perspective

Often there is a sense of distortion in his work: in Oak’s first introduction to Bathsheba, a “small swing looking-glass was disclosed, in which she proceed to survey herself attentively”. Here, like in many other parts of the novel, the reader is viewing Gabriel viewing Bathsheba viewing herself, and it is this layering which creates an almost cinematic effect. All the attention is on her, but without fanfare or exclamation marks!!!! With writing, unlike film, the idea of selective viewing is not often touched upon. Here is why:

Carol (2015) - a typical technique that is used throughout the movie. rarely do we find a scene that has a full and clear view, there is usually something stands in the way. this implies the view of the society on homosexuality and creates an imprisoning atmosphere for the love between two women.

This film still, from Carol (2015) would be very hard to put into writing, due to the obscured nature of the model/ actress herself and the nature of the reflection. Thus for Hardy to be able to explore perspective in that way is admirable.

Lesson two: it is actually unclear if he really was a feminist at this point, despite many fervent claims

This is concerning Far From the Madding Crowd, because of course in Tess of the D’Urbervilles he is does prove himself otherwise. But in this earlier context, it is uncertain if the plot actually supports Bathsheba taking on her own farm, and therefore the idea of “the women in the role of responsibility” that she represents.  She is portrayed as, unusually for the context, a woman independent from the authority of men, by owning a farm. This ownership was given to her, not earned, through her uncle’s will, which means that Bathsheba’s use of this power is even more important. If she had bought the farm herself, and then failed, at least some merit would be given to her for being able to make the money to buy the farm in the first place. But here, she is simply being given an opportunity on a platter, and as it is clear to see, she squanders it. She almost lets all her sheep die from an illness, simply due to pride, and she spends the entire novel being swept away by various men than tending to her farm.

It is as if Bathsheba is incompetent, because when every time she checked the farm at night, Gabriel “almost constantly preceded her in this tour every evening, watching her affairs”. Whilst this may be attributed to devotion, there is also a sense of her lack of skill. As if Gabriel is also following her just in case she misses something, because that is what was expected of women. What is more, when Bathsheba is at the marketplace, instead of focusing on her work, Hardy portrays her as being purely vain and concerned that there is a “black sheep among the flock” because one man was not looking at her. It is this scene where Bathsheba had a chance to assert herself in the an all-male environment, and yet instead Hardy chooses to portray her as wasting her time, despite all the power and opportunity she has been given.

Even if that interpretation is wrong, the narrator is highly sexist, making claims like: “women are never tired of bewailing man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy”, or how she was a “novelty among women- one who finished a thought before beginning the sentence which was to convey it”and also “the numerous evidences of her power to attract were only thrown into greater relief by a marked exception. Women seem to have eyes in ribbons for such matters as these”. It could be argued that the narrator does not reflect Hardy’s true feelings: that these harsh, sweeping generalisations are what Hardy expects the public want to hear. But this does not make sense. Nowhere else in the novel does the narrator explicitly express an opinion, or pass judgement in this way. Therefore the narrator is not a character, which means that the things they say are assumed to be true. Thus one cannot assume that Hardy included this bias consciously, and therefore that he was, at this point in his writing, still not the feminist that he is lauded as being today, in light of the casually sexist narrator and  Bathsheba’s failure to handle the responsibility she has be given- which is normally only given to a man- thus suggesting that women as a group were incapable of labour.

Overall, although it was interesting to pull apart the themes of the novel in seminars and to make presentations upon the characters, reading Far From the Madding Crowd was an unsatisfying experience. The story was initially drab, and the plot finishes off incredulously, and although Hardy had the perfect opportunity to create a heroine, instead he makes a fool.

What Margaret Atwood, a Pulitzer-prize winner and orange hair dye have in common

(Or which writer does short stories the best?)

Sometimes you read three books- just randomly picking them off the shelf- and in hindsight you realise that they all seem to be spookily similar. This has, in a way, happened with my reading over the last few months, where the number of collections of short stories I have read has been quite high compared to normal! Most writers are known only for their novels, so it was fascinating to see how they performed with the slightly different medium.

First of all, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Stone Mattress


Now, admittedly, I have not read any of her other work, (including, yes, I know, The Handmaid’s Tale), but I saw this book in the local library and decided that I might as well give her a try. Her writing style is very particular: not particularly flowery but her words are crafted in such a way that the writing is still imaginative and emotive.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if an extract from one these stories was featured in an English Literature exam, to the horror of many students searching in vain for the metaphors and allusions.

Atwood’s talent does shine through in the some of the stories, such as Alfinland, which about a fantasy writer who gets lost in a snowstorm and receives guidance from her dead husband. However, other stories just seemed to be, although illuminated by excellent writing, not exactly thrilling. There were some stories in there which just did even not fit into this collection, in terms of tone nor content, like Luxus Naturae and  I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth. The reason why these jarr so much is because in the opening of the collection there are a few interconnected stories, with a minor character from one becoming the protagonist in the other. That inconsistency is not ideal, especially as both of these irrelevant and weaker tales have been published before, so it is not like Atwood had publish them in this collection so that they could be seen by the world.

In terms of handling the short stories as a form: some of the endings fell flat, and it would have been more fun to see larger twists and surprises in there. However, the delivery of the ideas was superb, and therefore, although I would not read another short story collection by Atwood, I will endeavour to take on her longer works. At some point. Maybe.


Then I embarked on Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


There was one stand-out story here, called Click-Clack The Rattlebag. It proves that short stories are one of the best mediums for horror (although the others in Trigger Warning are more just fantasy/ science fiction), because it offers enough time for a premise and a twist, but not enough for time to be “wasted” on fluff, in this context, like character development and world building such as in a novel. It instead cuts straight to the fear, which is what people want from the genre, presumably.

Another highlight was a story about a teenage girl who used orange hair dye which turned her into this angry deity, much to the fear of her family. However, it is told through a questionnaire form, with only the answers revealed, so there are pieces of the narrative which you still have to fill in for yourself. On the other hand, other parts of the collection were not so strong- the poetry to say the least! That seemed to be an indulgent inclusion; as if he was trying to prove that he could write well in both prose and verse, but the real question is…can he? (Um, no.)

The stories do not fit together in any way, and Gaiman does allude to this in the introduction (which is rather drawn out), by saying that these could all be potentially disturbing, and thus all need a “Trigger Warning”. A good excuse to pull together seemingly random stories, none of which were exactly distressing in my mind. It is not that I mind this lack of consistency, but the book does seem a bit contrived because there is no new content in there apart from ONE story. One of them is even about Doctor Who, and another, The Sleeper and the Spindle, is a book in its own right with lovely illustrations by Chris Riddell. It just all seems a bit frantically drawn together, as if the publishers wanted to release another book and so patched together all his old work.

So, the content itself was much more inventive that Atwood, but like the Canadian, the consistency of the quality of the works throughout the collection was patchy, and it was concerning that there was only one previously unpublished story.

Here is, however, a lovely excerpt from “A Calendar of Tales”

I built an igloo out of books in my backyard.

I slept in my igloo made of books. I was getting hungry. I made a hole in the floor, lowered a fishing line and waited until something bit. I pulled it up: a fish made of books – green covered vintage Penguin detective stories. I ate it raw, fearing a fire in my igloo.

When I went outside I observed that someone had covered the whole world with books: pale-covered books, all shades of white and blue and purple. I wandered the ice floes of books.

I saw someone who looked like my wife out there on the ice. She was making a glacier of autobiographies.

“I thought you left me,” I said to her. “I thought you left me alone.”

She said nothing, and I realized she was only a shadow of a shadow


And lastly- the Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan, with her work,  A Visit From the Goon Squad


I am losing respect for the Pulitzer committee at this point, because this book held a queasy amount of attraction. As in, the characters were vaguely unlikeable and certainly unrelatable. The most lauded point of the book was the “Powerpoint journal” that Ally had for the segment about her. This girl is 12, and so the presentation of her thoughts in Fishbone Analysis, Cause-Effect and Bubble Charts form do seem a bit, again, contrived and ridiculous, especially considering how incongruous the form is to the content.

It is clear to see perhaps why the Pulitzer committee found the book attractive, but then again it does seem too… frivolous, perhaps, for the context of the award. It seems very similar in a way to Less, which also won the Pulitzer recently, and was touted as being the first comic novel to win the Pulitzer. And whilst Egan’s novel is not comic, it is not outstanding in the conventional literary sense, either. Maybe the overarching theme of misspent lives gives it more credit, as well as the unusual emphasis placed on sibling, rather than marital, relationships throughout. That is not to say that I do not think that the book is not well-written: it most certainly is. It is just that for an international award the tone was a bit too icy, and the characters a bit too inflexible.

The form of the short story was well-utilised here, though, because it did what Margaret Atwood had only partially achieved. Each character was a protagonist in one story, and then a secondary character in another, and each segment is told at a different point in time: one details how a publicist struggles with her the failure of business, and mentions her desire to fund Lulu’s (her daughter) education. Then another story is of Lulu as an adult, where she has a more active role in the narrative. The only problem is that one is unable to develop any meaningful relationship with any of the characters, because each chapter/ story is only a few pages long, and also since many of the characters are not likeable. And not even in an anti-hero way: more like, well you deserve everything that is coming for you because you are consistently pretentious/ obnoxious etc.. It is also not clear what Egan is trying to achieve because the stories themselves do not have the typical “story arc”, with a surprise/ pay-off at the end, and yet they do not work cohesively to form a larger narrative. As in, one of the chapters could be missing, and you would not notice when reading the novel through.

It is hard to say, therefore, given the many flaws that each collection has, if one author can really be touted the “best” short story writer. To give one author this title would suggest that their work possessed a standard much higher than the others. But, sadly, they are all too problematic in their own way to be crowned. So the short-story crown shall remain with me indefinitely, until I find a worthy author.