All that remains

sueblack
Prof. Black herself

death

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.

Furthermore:

“You’re black, okay?” I yell. “You’re black!”
Silence.
“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!”
Silence.
“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.