Prescription: A New Outlook on Life

cold
It’s that time of year when we all need a little medecine. This time… it’s literary 

Doctors are mythical creatures. You go to them, bleary eyed and aching, and somehow they know precisely what’s wrong. With a tap of their fingers, a magical remedy is conjured up and soon you feel in fine fettle. Said no one ever. Particularly Adam Kay, a former junior doctor, who wrote about his experience in This Is Going To Hurt. 

From the opening, he reveals his own apparent ineptitude when he was starting out as a medical student thrust straight onto the ward. But not only that, his book is revolutionary because it tells the hidden story of the NHS. Everyone hears about how it’s a dying beast; that funds are being cut and staffing is down.

NHS bill rally at Westminster

But then we scroll down to the next news story. But what does that mean in reality? Through his talk about triple shifts, more time spent working than not and even catching sleep in hospital beds, Kay does not paint an optimistic, nor reassuring, picture of the state of our National Service.

You would know. It’s like when you went to A&E with a bleeding leg, or broken arm, or a fever. Then you complained because you’d been waiting for 4 hours. Well, as it turns out, actually the medical staff weren’t punishing you by keeping you waiting. No, they were punishing themselves, relentlessly working, and if you were being pushed to the back of the queue, it should have been a relief because that meant that your problems weren’t as serious compared to those around you.

As written in the book:

“Medicine is the host who manages to keep you at their party hours after you first think about leaving.”

Perhaps that was something we all secretly knew inside us, though. That we’re never kept waiting out of spite, but due to staff shortage. But it’s like how many of life’s greatest messages aren’t surprising; it’s just that we need someone to tell us. And that’s exactly what This is Going to Hurt does. Trust me, you’ll never look at a doctor the same way again.

He also writes how the training, rigorous though it was, didn’t quite prepare Kay for the massive responsibility bestowed upon him from the outset, like having to deal with: gruesome ailments, unheard of sicknesses, births and even death. To sum it up, he said:

“It’s funny – you don’t think of doctors getting ill.’ It’s true, and I think it’s part of something bigger: patients don’t actually think of doctors as being human. It’s why they’re so quick to complain if we make a mistake or if we get cross. It’s why they’ll bite our heads off when we finally call them into our over-running clinic room at 7 p.m., not thinking that we also have homes we’d rather be at. But it’s the flip side of not wanting your doctor to be fallible, capable of getting your diagnosis wrong. They don’t want to think of medicine as a subject that anyone on the planet can learn, a career choice their mouth-breathing cousin could have made.”

You have to admit he’s onto something there.

There are of course hilarious anecdotes- of patients who enter the hospital for rather embarrassing reasons- and then somewhat inherently sad ones too. Like how the hospital staff have to pay extortionate parking prices. That sounds minor and trivial, but it meant that their losing 50% of their wage to a machine which, at the end of the day, would earn more than even them. And that machine doesn’t even know which way to put on hospital scrubs.

Oh, and a final thing I learnt from the book? Thanks to Kay’s detailed descriptions from his time working at Obstetrics and Gynaecology: that childbirth is brutal and somewhat disgusting.

 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

SEPTEMBER BOOK OF THE BOOK

superhuman

When prisoners were asked to rate themselves in terms of how moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, law-abiding, self-controlled, kind to others and generous they were, they said that they were better than average at 8 out of the 9 traits. Let’s read that again. Prisoners charged with violence and theft thought that they were more compassionate than the rest of the population. And had more self-controlled. Right, yes, that totally makes sense.

In fact, the only trait where they didn’t supposedly surpass  the rest of the population with was in ‘law-abidingness’, where they “rated themselves as equally law-abiding”. Which is ironic, as they were the ones behind bars. This phenomenon of wanting to elevate your own status is not new, and the vast majority of people when asked these very questions thought that they too are better than average at practically everything. Yes… I know, the maths for everyone being better than average doesn’t quite add up, does it?

So humanity are keen to establish their superiority over others. But who really are the best, the so-called superhumans of our race, and can we become like them? As Oscar Wilde once famously said:

oscar wilde gutter.jpg

 

No one likes the thought of being sub-par: yes, people are lazy and do things against their self-interest, but there is always a part of them that wants greatness. Fame, money, social recognition. It’s the way contemporary society works, and I am no different. The Ink Cloud hit the Fringe this past August, and during my free time I wandered into Waterstones (surprise surprise) with about £100 worth of book tokens to spend. As some readers may have gathered from my reading choices, I’m extremely interested in sport (namely triathlon). I will be the first to say that I am ambitious person whose overwhelming confidence in certain situations is almost laughable (as you can also probably tell from my posts). Unashamedly, I do want to succeed, especially in triathlon which I train a lot for. So it’s no wonder that Rowan Hooper’s book Superhuman captured my attention. I was drawn to the title and blurb, because I wanted to find out how I too can be like them: there was an attraction finally hearing the secret of how to be superior. It sounds unattractive perhaps, but I bet you feel the same way, too. Deep down. Don’t deny it.

In the book, Hooper finds those who excel in various walks in life, whether it’s their ability to be supremely intelligent, fast, resilient or even happy. There are many interviews and scientific studies, as well as witty quips. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for well-designed book cover, and the sprinter on the front really did it for me. Because if I’m going to part with £20 for a book, it may as well look classy. Right? Anyway, I was hoping to come to Superhuman to find some secret, some little insight into how I could reach the level of sporting success that I crave. Maybe ‘crave’ is the wrong word, because I train copiously everyday, so it’s not like I just sit in bed and hope for it. But you see what I mean.

Thus the main message behind Superhuman, I can exclusively reveal, is that genetics is at play. A could be called a useful catalyst. Nice to have, sure, but not essential. This is because time and time again it was actually hard work that was the driving force the success people experienced. Yes, elite runners with innate talent may have learnt to walk a little faster, but talent hadn’t woken them up at 5AM so that they can go to a pre-school training. What I took away from it all was:

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But I knew that anyway, and you probably did too. Yet reading this book was nevertheless genuinely enjoyable and hearing about all these successful people truly drove that message home.

Cycle of lies: should Armstrong have been condemned?

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*Opinion formed from the excellent Cycle of Lies by Juliet Macur*

As a society we fundamentally value those who persevere in the face of adversity with unparalleled guile and strength. Think of people revered today: Usain Bolt, Steve Jobs, Hilary Mantel, Emmeline Pankhurst and Albert Einstein. They all had to push past some sort of boundary to become renowned in their field, and each thus achieved success in their own right; whether it was a world record, a Man Booker prize or a ground-breaking mathematics theory.

So, it makes sense that Lance Armstrong would be seen as the embodiment of the American dream and that he would take the world by storm with a never-ending list of cycling wins – including seven Tour de France titles. Take his domination in the sport and couple it with his cancer survival story (and the Livestrong charity that followed), and it should come as no surprise that he was embraced by the world. And if his success was unbelievable, then his fall was even more inconceivable.

At the time of his (in)famous Oprah Winfrey interview, there were media outbursts, there are news-grabbing headlines and there were far, far too many rumours. Reams of people ripped off their yellow Livestrong wristbands that were as ubiquitous amongst the public as drugs were in cycling. Everybody was shocked and all they knew was that Armstrong had cheated the public of their dream. The masses had relied on him, with posters above their office desk, to make incredible feats seem achievable for people with mundane lives like them. To lose that credulity cut them deep, and no-one was interested to hear the whole story. This was because it was so easy to condemn Armstrong. To point the finger and say that he was the evil, malicious ring-leader who shoved EPO into people’s veins. Problem solved, turn your back in shame at the lie you had so carelessly bought into.  But of course, it is never as simple as that. Nothing ever is.

To realise the intricacies of cycling at that time and Armstrong’s career, it is crucial to realise just how systemic drug use was. Everyone was on it. Everyone. The most impactful part of a book that I read on Armstrong (Cycle of Lies, Juliet Macur) is when Armstrong had been accused of cheating. That he had cheated the world of their dream and the other cyclists of a fair competition. Armstrong subsequently looked up the word “cheating” and saw that it meant getting an ‘unfair advantage’ over other competitors. He shook his head; he couldn’t believe his legal sentence. Doping wasn’t unfair, and it certainly wasn’t an advantage. As drugs become more prolific in the sport,  it became more a leveler than anything else. People didn’t inject themselves with brightly coloured liquids to guarantee victory; it was to ensure that they could just keep up.

This is where opinion comes in. To simplify the process, consider that you were a professional endurance runner. Imagine that there is a pair of shoes that can make any runner instantly 20% faster. The authorities are looking for the shoes, yet struggle to identify them despite the fact that all your competitors are wearing them. Without them, you are getting left behind because suddenly the whole field is miles ahead. What do you do? Do you sit in the dust, crying? Or do you pick yourself up, find yourself the shoes and know that the next time you toe the line, the best runner will win, because now everyone is faster, it makes no difference?

Because when everyone has drugs, there is no advantage.

It makes sense that Armstrong still considers himself the winner of the 7 Tour de France titles he originally won, even after he was officially stripped of them. Who else could they have actually gone to instead? Who wasn’t cheating? This isn’t like one outlier in the Olympic Games, where medals are re-awarded years later.

Of course, his attitude towards his teammates and the media was at times horrendous and outrageous. Often, the way he acted was absolutely horrific and no-one can condone that kind of behaviour. But that is not the point; the point is whether in a culture of doping, are there any real victims? Once it is omnipresent (and by the sound of it, it was) then doesn’t it just become another tool, like a streamline swimsuit in swimming or a type of aero-dynamic helmet in cycling? Another thing to make you faster?

A debate has existed in this vain for a long time. As we reach the limits of what humans are physically capable of, the question arises of whether drugs should become legal in sport, so that records can be crushed once more, and excitement injected into sport again. This was even discussed on the renowned BBC podcast “A Running Joke, with Rutherford and Fry”. But the problem with drugs is that unlike creating a lighter hockey stick, these substances alter the human body in ways which are unnatural to the extreme, and therefore highly dangerous. Athletes are the most motivated and competitive people on Earth; they already do shocking things to their body to win, so doping would pose no health-related qualms for them. And with all the sports competitions now being televised, athletes are quickly becoming accessible role-models and icons. Children should not in the future be looking up to steroid filled sprinters, wanting to be artificially muscular like them, if you see what I mean. And with the athlete’s health in mind, too, there is no way that the IOC could condone doping, given how risky and experimental it can be.

So, once the cycle of doping had started, it was difficult not to be sucked in as a pro. It’s easy to understand how it turned into another piece of tech, to be used alongside careful nutrition and training. But the UCI needed a figurehead, someone to take down publicly to prove to the rest of the world that doping could not continue. It is unfair that Armstrong was targeted when many of his contemporaries basically got amnesty. There was no uniform punishment, and when you are the one suffering the most from a policy, naturally it’s going to hurt.

But the most important thing is that cycling is clean again. (Supposedly just look at recent allegations around Froome.) Armstrong’s forceful condemnation did indeed allow a new generation of cyclists to enter the sport without the fear of being pressured into blood transfusions and backroom injections. And that cannot be a bad thing.

9 phrases to use when discussing the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner

There comes a point in our lives, when despite our best intentions, time has crumbled away from underneath our feet to land us too far ahead in the future than we had accounted for.

The activities that we had penciled in for ourselves were seemingly swallowed up by other commitments, and although your companions are equally busy, they seem to handle this precarious game of balancing work and “life” rather well. Understandably, you’re still trying to veer your life back onto its original track: so there was no time to read the Pulitzer winner this year. But to make it look like you did (I fully expect you read it in the meantime though out of principle,) here are 10 phrases to help you hold your own in a conversation at a fabulously grand dinner party. You are trying to stitch your social life back together after all, and the invite has been sitting on your coffee table for weeks…

  1. (You walk into a grand room, a minor royal by your side who is trying to avoid the pearls of sweat glimmering on your forehead.)  

    “I say, Viscount of Prumfbørg, don’t you think that the mysterious narrator in Less who slowly reveals themselves throughout the novel is no surprise by the denouement? Weren’t you a little confused by the reveal, as Greer made him refer himself in third person to try to prolong the tension?”

    A solid start. He did avoid eye contact though, so clearly your tone of voice was a little too keen. A rookie error. Anyway, it is clear that Greer was attempting to create mystery around the narrator’s identity, but he undermined this goal by making Freddy omnipotent. This did dull the credulity of the narrator as an actual person. On the other hand, if Greer was switching from Freddy to a third person narrator throughout the novel, then this was never signalled nor made clear, and thus was poor writing on his behalf either way.

2. (Whilst unironically eating a smoked salmon canapé, circling the masses, as you hone in on a lone socialite scrolling through memes.)

“Excuse me, ahem, whilst you look at Kermit memes, (a bit inappropriate for such a fine event, don’t you think?) but don’t you think Greer truly inverts the metric of loneliness in society, during the scene with Lewis and Less in Marrakech?”

She tried to grimace a smile, but the Botox was stopping her. You tried. That’s the main thing. You also had a good point! The poignancy is almost crushing; to realise that you have been looking at life through the wrong lens the entire time, and that when you remove that lens for the first time, you’ve realised all you’ve ever known is a world tinted with blue.

” ‘But you broke up with him. Something’s wrong. Something failed.’

‘No! No, Arthur, no, it’s the opposite! I’m saying it’s a success. Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success If a band stays together for twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it\s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count? It isn’t in us, it isn’t in human beings, to be tied to one person forever. Siamese twins are a tragedy. Twenty years and one last happy road trip. And I thought, Well, that was nice. Let’s end on success.

People often consider things which end sourly a failure, ignoring that the longevity of the success itself is a win in its own right, regardless of the eventual outcome. Take Mo Farah’s career, for example. He finished second at 5000m track event at the World Championships, where he (and his fan base) were bitterly disappointed. That didn’t make his entire career- the double Olympic golds- worthless though, did it? It’s an interesting perspective to consider, because sometimes fond memories with people can be ruined after they in some way wrong you, but at the time the memory was formed you were having a fantastic day. Thus Greer presents happiness as something that can be crystallised and kept, not ruined in hindsight.

3. (Attempting to make a good impression on a legal giant who is sat next to you at a ridiculously long dinner table. She hasn’t even read the book because she’s reading Anna Karenina in the original Russian. But you don’t know that. You forgot to ask.)

“So… (squints, reading name card above her plate) Ms Artle, wouldn’t you agree that Greer is like Less himself during the Indian retreat considering his own novel? He must have, after all, ultimately realised that Less with the ‘best life of anyone I know’ was not likeable enough. That Less was not unfortunate enough on his own, so the inclusion of the failure of Swift (the protagonist of Less’ own novel) serves as his foil, and ultimately draws sympathy?”    

She offers a flashing smile, then gestures to the door and stands up to leave. Damn, gastrointestinal problems? She nods. Or just rejection? What a mood killer. It’s true, though. There is nothing particularly awful happening in Less’ life; he can even travel around the world. Greer just about manages to save himself from catastrophe though, and conjures a meagre amount of emotion up when his includes Less’ failed book deal.

4. (The main is being served; duck and orange blossom. You speak as you wait for the dishes to be placed on the table. To yourself, of course, as everyone else in is their own fascinating conversation. You hope that someone will overhear your wittering and ask more.)

Yeah, yeah so the tension built up over the course of the novel, the large question mark over the wedding of Freddy Pelu, was hardly as dramatic as Greer had built it up to be. One could only find it moving if they were as weak as a limp cabbage.” 

Now I can only take you so far with these phrases. I cannot conjure up social interaction, but really, no one wants to be involved with people talking to themselves. You should know better, even if the entire purpose of the book is for Less to find some resolve for the fact that Freddy is getting married. Unfortunately for Greer, in the end it boils down to the fact that, actually, nobody is particularly concerned that Less is morose. Let Freddy have a wonderful evening; you seem to have no issue manifesting an impression that you have moved on, illustrating by the amount of people you mysteriously managed to pick up during your travels.

5. (A passing waiter has stopped to fill up your Merlot from Petrus, Pomerol, France careful not to spill it at over £3,000 a bottle.)

“Thank you, thank you. A little bit more- stop there, yes. And isn’t funny, and rather prophetic in a way, that Greer himself becomes a Pulitzer Prize winner? There’s irony in that. The question is, will he also become an unbearable genius like Robert? What-“

(The answer is no, because the book really isn’t that revolutionary in any sense of the word.) Also, the waiter has moved on, unaware that you were trying to engage them in this frivolous talk. And as a PPE student at Oxford, this being their weekend job to get the cash rolling in to fund their chalet, their taste is a bit more highbrow than yours anyway.

6. (Raunchily to the Art Gallery owner next to you, as the jazz band begins to play.)

“I don’t understand art. You know? How it can be judged to be billions and squillions of pounds. Like the award of the Pulitzer prize to a comic novel is unheard of. Of course, this illustrates how the modern media is becoming more open-minded, and not in the least because of the gay protagonist. Yeah?”

He nods appreciatively. Then goes on in great detail to talk about his own failing art career for the next 25 minutes and how biased the industry is. You mention that Greer’s success signals a change in writing industry at least? He shakes his head. You mention that now not only has a comic novel won for the first time, but Less is gay, which indicates to the world that Pulitzer is still a “forwarding thinking” prize that embraces diversity. He pouts. Personally, he says, what is better than forward thinking is awarding prizes to books which genuinely deserve the accolade. Fair enough.

7. (On the balcony, gazing soulfully into the stars as the hedged garden spans out before you as you talk to the lead singer now having a smoke.)

“Lovely, lovely voice I daresay. We’re so lucky to be here, no? This beautiful garden. This privilege of ours. I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize winner don’t you know? Yes, and Greer unfortunately fails to capitalise on Less’ own privilege, which would not only add a more contemporary dimension to the story, but make it more relatable. Also, do you have a business card?”

(She doesn’t, and begins to chain-smoke.) As for the whole privilege issue, this is because it feels like at times Less’ only challenge is that faced by his failing romantic life. He is a white middle-aged man with lots of money, and his sexuality does not take away from his this particularly because he has found himself a welcoming environment, so the internal conflict we see is at best transparent and at worst remarkably unoriginal.

8. (Holding a champagne glass, slightly tipsy but still remarkably in control of advanced thought. There is a tired 10 year old who is sitting in an antique chair. You join them.)

“Tired? Me too. I’m tired that the relationship upon which Less rests upon (the name of big book these days, Frederic) the one with him and Freddy, is so hurriedly done that is makes it equally unbelievable and unmoving. Fancy a game of rock, paper, scissors?”

As you are gripped in your game, though, you realise that the Freddy/ Less relationship really is rough around the edges and quickly presented to the reader after the opening. This is a fatal flaw in the novel because this is where the entirety of the protagonist’s drive comes from. After all this is where the grief and regret centering around Freddy’s wedding directly stems from. The relationship needs to be more developed than a few simple scene with bed sheets, because we have to see why Freddy is such an incredible character that losing him would be catastrophic for Less, much in the same way someone would have to be persuaded that a £200 wine bottle is quite worth the expense when it tastes the same as a £30 one.

9. (You’ve collapsed on the croquet lawn: drunk again, talking to a retired surgeon who’s ironically passed out next to you.)

“Hello? Old chap? Don’t you, don’t think that maybe Greer frames an unusual debate about the le-legitimacy of those superior in intelligence to have the right to be unashamedly self-centred? My, I can talk sloshed! What. Yeah, yes, yes! ONLY they, after all, can create mahsterpieces that few other human minds are capable of compre-comprehend- understanding. Yesh.” 

“What was it like to live with genius?
Like living alone.
Like living alone with a tiger.
Everything had to be sacrificed for the work. Plans had to be canceled, meals had to be delayed; liquor had to be bought, as soon as possible, or else all poured into the sink. Money had to be rationed or spent lavishly, changing daily. The sleep schedule was the poet’s to make, and it was as often late nights as it was early mornings. The habit was the demon pet in the house; the habit, the habit, the habit; the morning coffee and books and poetry, the silence until noon. Could he be tempted by a morning stroll? He could, he always could; it was the only addiction where the sufferer longed for anything but the desired; but a morning walk meant work undone, and suffering, suffering, suffering. Keep the habit, help the habit; lay out the coffee and poetry; keep the silence; smile when he walked sulkily out of his office to the bathroom. Taking nothing personally. And did you sometimes leave an art book around with a thought that it would be the key to his mind? And did you sometimes put on music that might unlock the doubt and fear? Did you love it, the rain dance every day? Only when it rained.”

But, at this point in the night, you think that you’re a genius too. You forget Less, and start wildly planning your own novel. And then you begin to write your Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech.

What To Read If You’re A Narcissist*

(August Book of the Month!!)

Are you the type of person who also spends more time choosing an outfit for an event than preparing for the lecture you will give there? (An optimistic guess of the core readers, but I’ll run with it.)

Do you want to spend hours admiring your many talents by doing Are You Smarter Than Einstein quizzes and having wonderful daily rambles into the realms of self-reflection?

Do you feel constantly under-appreciated by all others in your family, even when you did all their laundry, walked the dog and made their Chilli Costume at 10 pm for World Taste Day as little Tommy only remembered at bedtime that it was the next morning? (Actually, that probably is a fair one.)

If so, then PSY-Q is for you! Oh, and you’re a narcissist.

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Anyway, the book is littered with many curious, engaging and thought-provoking tests which ultimately tell you more about yourself. We all know that our IQ is highly superior (by default) to everyone else’s, but it’s always fun to do the personality tests, Rorschach tests and Raven test that Ben Ambridge includes in his hefty book amongst many others.

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What do you see in these ink blots? Your answer may reveal more about you than you think…

But the quizzes, riddles and multiple choice questions are all part of a larger scheme to explain the psychology behind It All. By that, I mean the basic prinicples of all kinds of things, for example neurological and linguistic disorders, with everything tied together by the results of your test. Sounds neat? Well, it is.

One of the many fascinating things that Ambridge discusses is selective attention. Take the test below by watching the video- it’s awesome (and it’s very popular, so you may have already done it).

Ambridge walks us mere ordinary citizens through why selective attention occurs, and how it is useful when implemented in everyday life, (it allows us to have a conversation on a busy train, for example, as all the other voices can be blocked out instead of distracting us). But that’s not all. Ambridge also offers the reader a whistle-stop tour through first-year psychology, explaining not only everyday revelations but deeply personal ones too, such as with the sunk cost fallacy.

As the authour sagely mentions at the start of the book, everything links back to psychology, even money- no, especially money. It’s all good and well, being that told you’re a relatively open person with extroverted tendencies, because you  knew that already. But being dropped the bombshell that you’re actually culpable to mental financial tricks (like the sunk cost fallacy) is something else. Here is what it is, in a nutshell:

SunkCostEffect

Or, as put eloquently, here:

sunkcosts

All things considered, it’s most likely not what a great man once meant when, to delight of motivational posters stockers everywhere, he said:

202165-you-didn-t-come-this-far-to-only-come-this-far.jpg

But it stills applies. The point is that there are many pitfalls that we face in life which are clearly explained by a proper psychologist (none of that self-proclaimed Instagram riff-raff) across a broad spectrum of topics which may end up not only informing your future decisions, but helping you to guide them. To use the SCF example from earlier, like when you’ve spent £300 on a plane ticket you no longer want, instead of paying an extra £1000 and wasting 4 days of your holiday going to a place you don’t even like to make sure that the plane tickets are wasted, you may remember the sunk cost fallacy and take the £300 loss. Or not. It’s your cash.

Of course, the explanations, whilst thorough, are superficial because we of the public don’t have medical degrees, so it’s not likely to be useful to anyone with much grounding in psychology already. Laughably, by the end of the book Ambridge finishes with this optimistic note: I hope at least some of you are now inspired to go on to study psychology at university, or even go onto your postgrad. Wait. What? I’m sorry brother, but I’m not going to switch my university choice just from a few fancy tests of yours. Your book is interesting and all, granted, but you need to tone your expectation levels down or you will sorely disappointed!

Except, maybe after reading PSY-Q, YOU will be the one Ambridge is talking about who starts a new degree. Not convinced? Give the book a read and prove me wrong. Because that’s what narcissists like to do, after all.

*or just really interest in psychology.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Owens River Valley
So take a left at the T junction, go straight past Eden and then take the third exit at the roundabout. Then you’re East of Eden.

Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.

At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.

The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.

Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.

The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.

All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…

Thwaites undergoats an udderly ridiculous joureny

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Goat and follow your dreams; if a man can become a goat, then you can definitely become a popstar

The concept behind GoatMan is ingenious. It sounds like an invention only someone desperate, determined and open-minded would do. Which is Thomas Thwaites in a nutshell, or should I say, goat’s cheese wheel.

Stumbling along in life, with no job and acting as a unwilling trustafarian, Thwaites decided to turn his life around. Somehow, he thought that becoming an elephant walking across the Alps was the way to do it, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. Which does still sound decidedly trustafarian-like all things considered, but at least the author wasn’t dog-sitting anymore.

Having trekked to Copenhagen and given some shamanic guidance in a hut, Thwaites realised he should’ve been a goat all along. It would’ve got my goat to say the least if I was part-way through an elephant design project and changed animal, but Thwaites didn’t seem to mind. Throughout the book we are guided through his process of realising his goal: visits to goat farms, creators of prosthetics, animal dissections (ft. snow leopard and an alpaca with practically tuberculosis) and a psychologist all feature. It’s exciting stuff.

Winning the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for the project, as seen in the book GoatMan by Thomas Thwaites, this goes far deeper than merely thinking ‘goat-like’ thoughts. Impressively, Thwaites commits to the project with a level of dedication seldom seen elsewhere, and the documentation of this is displayed aesthetically, which appears to be the designer of Thwaites coming through, or in any doubt, a great publishing house. For every notable event, there is a technicolour image to boot, my favourite being (not the goat’s rumen spilling everywhere in graphic detail whilst I thought about my last meal, but in fact) Prof. Hutchinson’s freezer. It’s filled with hundreds of plastic bags with mysterious lumps and it’s all rather intriguing. Lumps being dead animals and intriguing meaning including giraffe necks and elephant feet. Check out his blog here: http://www.whatsinjohnsfreezer.com

As a concept it’s fantastic; sometimes it’s wonderful to do something just for the sake of it, not because it will ‘look good on my CV’. I hear this so often, with people wandering off on Duke of Edinburghs (it’s overrated- I ran out of food because my porridge pots broke and I woke up with frost on the inside of my tent), or attending up to 8 hours of extra curricular activities a week in the hope of impressing someone later in life in an application. Whilst pursing interests is important, I find that since the only incentive is to gain a place at an academic institution, it seems like a waste of time. Most people I know don’t even know what they want to do next weekend, let alone for their degree courses. Yet societal values have convinced us that the only path to success is: go to university, have a long working career- establishing yourself as upper middle class whilst you have a family, then retire. That’s the conventional measure of a happy lifestyle today, with the amount of wealth accumulated punctuating that achievement. But what if that isn’t true? There are so many assumptions in there, and now people automatically think they want going to university, but with no real incentive of their own except that that is what everybody else is.

So this book appeals because it is a rebellion of that. Sure, Thwaites did it to drag himself out of a pool of unemployment, but he could have worked as a waiter to do that. He didn’t know that he was going to win the Ig Prize for the Project. He received (and still does probably) uncertain comments from people around him surrounding it, but he preserved because that’s what he wanted to do. To live a simpler life is a noble aim, I suppose. It’s difficult to let go of everything, of contacts, the internet, unnecessary material objects. There’s an underlying fear of making that decision and getting so far behind with the world that if you don’t hurry, it’ll be too late to return.

Yet to take the time out and simply read this project counteracts that. You’ll never put reading this on your CV, and you’ll be so enraptured that you won’t think of your phone. Think of reading this as a little rebellion, your own holiday from being a modern Homo sapiens.

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

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Even a battered, £2.50 book can fill me with delight. In the spare moments of my ‘very busy’ summer holiday, I found time to read Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca. Which is just as well, because ten years ago, skirt askew and blazer crumpled,  I was in a house at school called Du Maurier. We all got little green pin with a gold lined book and a pen engraved into the  enamel. Along with various other inspirational women whom the houses were named after, the name meant nothing more to me than that it signified the colour shirt I wore on Sports Day. Now, sufficiently literate, I have decided to finally pay attention to Du Maurier, and pick up one of her greatest pieces (although, admittedly, not enough to buy a copy at full price)!

There is the magnificent setting itself, Manderely House, where the protagonist a Mrs de Winter and Max de Winter live. Although it’s precise location is never revealed, in the author’s note I read that Du Maurier’s old home Mandabilly was the main inspiration. It’s a brooding place, full of complexities and has such an animate character that if the plot was set in a cottage, or some other half-hearted building, it would simply be an awful reading experience. Much like pathetic fallacy with the weather, it is seen with the house and that is what makes the novel so impactful. Also, the description reminds me rather a lot of somewhere I go often, Endsleigh House so the nostalgia and memories of that trip trickled perfectly into the narrative:

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The Endsleigh hotel, or Manderely? There’s even a dog and roses!

There is something so dark about the narrative, so wonderfully obscene about the twist of events that I cannot help but find myself, like a child drawn to the trigger of a gun, mesmerised by it. It’s an oddly comforting storyline, in all honesty; after all, it confirms humanity’s vulnerability, that no relationships can be idealised, except perhaps when you are judging other peoples’. That’s precisely what the second wife, Mrs de Winter, did. She was swept away by the façade, daunted by the expectations following Maxim’s previous marriage, that it choked her potential. It’s needless to say how to many teenagers can find this book liberating; think of Instagram accounts of the rich and famous as one huge Rebecca and Maxim marriage, except without the honesty and the murder trial. Agreed, that a minority of famous bloggers unveil the reality behind the laborious process and their undying emotional instability even though millions of people comment about how much they want to look like them, but it’s just that those that don’t, lead us to believe that the images are their true nature, therefore forcing our own standards higher.

So, the novel’s called Rebecca. But what is the name of our protagonist, the young school girl? It’s one of the best plot devices of all; how du-Maurier neglected to mention her name, left us hanging on a string of anticipation. In the end, though, we aren’t troubled by this absence, but are riddled with speculation, with the sheer curiosity of this. After perusing the internet, some thought that she was called Daphne, after all it was cited early in the book that Maxim said she had an unusual name, and many believe this story was written to reflect the author’s own experiences. Others think that du Maurier merely forgot. But if you’re composing such a masterpiece, sifting day upon day on material, now stale from being constantly looked scanned for improvements, then of course you simply wouldn’t have forgetten. It’s almost farcical to suggest such a notion. Personally, I believe that it’s a reflection of Mrs de Winter’s own shyness, own timidity that she couldn’t even draw that much attention to herself to speak up on the number of occasions where it could have been mentioned.

So, reader, give it a try. I had put off reading Rebecca long enough, unexcited by the drab premise, but I have to say it’s now officially my favourite book (yay! Finally something to say at dinner parties… well, not dinner parties, but you know what I mean). It has affected me so much I have even named one of my bonsai trees (I have a few) Maxim. Yes, the level of adoration is serious.

 

 

 

A review of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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Paul O’Rourke is a dentist who believes that flossing is pointless. He lives in New York, owning his business without having an office. He likes watching baseball. Until someone creates a website for his company, creating false bios about himself and even starting up a Twitter account in Paul’s name.

Whilst Paul meanders the implications of the religious messages spread as though from him, his relationship with others in his workplace unfold- ex-girlfriend receptionist, maternal hygienist and blank-faced assistant. As Paul flounders in the face of relating to other people, his lack of a personal life becomes entrenched as his dedication to dentistry fills in the gaps in his life. Paul denies himself the internet and is an interesting 21st century specimen (I feel like this word is appropriate), who articulates the fears that everybody has lodged deep within themselves, but aren’t willing enough to confront. One of the reasons why this is notable, is because it means that the person who has stolen his identity can operate for a vast length of time before Paul even identifies any issue.

I was already at one remove before the Internet came along. I need another remove? Now I have to spend the time that I’m not doing the thing they’re doing reading about them doing it? Streaming the clips of them doing it, commenting on how lucky they are to be doing all those things, liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from?

It’s true though. Why in society today do we genuinely need more connection? How is my life made any better by knowing that Charlotte did 500 squats in the gym? If tt make me feel inadequate,  I should abandon Facebook, and if it does not invoke a response at all, what’s the point in engaging in the first place?

Paul has a fascinating take on religion. He admires churches and synagogues and rituals, although being an atheist himself. The saddest thing about the rejection of religious practice to him, is not the lack of a guiding figure or book to lodge his thoughts in, but instead the vocabulary. Faith, charity, hope. These are ingrained in religions and it is these words he desires the most in life.

This is no surprise as Paul is an inherently lonely person; it is a winding novel and there is a plot, but it is padded with flashbacks and stuffy bits of information about the protagonist. One of these things are his relationships; he has no friends for certain, but his two girlfriends were heavily imbedded in religious communities and it was these things he was truly attracted to: the sense of belonging, of a wider place in society. Subconsciously, he saw that these girlfriends were his ticket to spot, to becoming enveloped in the Jewish/ Christian way of life. Now, two breakups later, religion is back in his life again as Ulmist messages are being spread across the web; not that he even know what an Ulm is.

The novel takes us on a journey of self-recognition and of realisation of others around you, as well as a reflection of life (and death) itself. This is more of a thought-provoking piece than anything else and although there is notable humour, the selling-point for me is the examination of Paul. He isn’t real. But his portrayal invites the reader to examine their own selves to identify flaws and to try to improve them. What better type of writing can there be?

 

This is my favourite quote from the entirety of the novel:

She no longer lived in a world of speculation or recall and would take nothing on faith when the facts were but a few clicks away. It drove me nuts. I was sick to death of having as my dinner companions Wikipedia, About.com, IMDb, the Zagat guide, Time out New York, a hundred Tumblrs, the New York Times, and People magazine. Was there not some strange forgotten pleasure in reveling in our ignorance? Would we just be wrong?

Dear Lupin by Roger and Charlie Mortimer

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The book has also been turned into a play, which had a successful run at the Apollo Theatre

 

Dear readers,

Some say the message is medium: Dear Lupin is a collection of letters that span nearly 25 years, and through this form offer the most intimate insight into the Mortimers’ lives. If intimate is the right word- it seems like multiple opportunities to be delighted at the sheer hilarity of it is more suitable.

Letters. Seems dated now, doesn’t it? Something you only tend to at Christmas out of obligation, not because the simple act offers any sort of satisfaction. (I bet many people have said the same about over-indulging in mince pies, but there you go.) Here, it conveys admirably parental despair. In reality, nothing in our modern day with the prevalent technology could genuinely reveal to the same depth any relationship. Imagine being a historian, sifting through the one line texts. There’s no detail behind what we communicate now, because who has time to go into the neighbour’s health? Why bother? It’s this offhand thinking that not makes it difficult not only for people in the future to discern who we really are, but it makes life clouded for ourselves when we can’t even engage with each other. What does anything mean to us?

Roger Mortimer typically humoured the pages with self-deprecation or painstaking accurate remarks. “Doubtless you regard me as monumental bore, tolerated only at times because I fork out some cash, but senile as I am I probably know a bit more about you and your friends than you seem to realise” Hm. Bet a lot of parents today would be much more success in talking to their children if they realised in themselves these words.

Anyway, it is rather clear to see that although Charlie entertained a school career at Eton, it wasn’t exactly the most successful, as he was constantly reminded to try and get through a term “without a chorus of disapproval and despair from the unfortunate masters who have to try and teach you something.” Joyfully Charlie moves through life though, and it’s almost bizarre, like watching a time-lapse of a plant, to see the style and tone of the letters change. One moment it’s from a reprimanding father, another it’s from a more- well, still reprimanding father, but with a rather letter edge to the words.

“Dear Charles,                                                                                                                                        I am very impulsive. Your mother is also very impulsive. That is quite enough for one family. Let us have a little… deliberation from you. So to start with, get rid of that motorbike. I did not give you £40 for that, as you well know!”

But, like everything, things start to break down and crumble, and although the earlier letters were cheerful and lighthearted, punctuated with concerns, the hilarity seeps away towards the end of the collection, where above all Roger voices his fears of ageing, of dying. It is poignant and raw- often a gruff acceptance of fate that retells all our own fears. This is a book which will not only inspire you to laughter and morose reflection, but to start writing letters again yourself.

Best wishes,

Melrose