10/100 — Review | BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose

In fiction, there are a few things I can’t resist:

  • historical horror (see: Michelle Paver, Dan Simmons, Stephen King’s Rose Red works)

  • stories about witches

  • stories about writing

  • stories set on college campuses

Blue Angel, Francine Prose’s 2000 novel about a writing teacher led astray, ticks two of those boxes.

Ted Swenson is an ageing novelist with a comfortable, somewhat stagnated life, teaching creative writing at Euston college while failing to write his third novel. Everything is fine until Angela Argo, a formerly quiet student of his, shows him the first chapter of her novel. Her writing turns out to be excellent. Enamoured with her talent Swenson begins to meet up regularly with Angela to support her, all while his university gears up to deal with the rise of sexual harassment charges happening in academia.

Unlike some of his fellow teachers, Swenson’s never slept with a student, nor his colleague Madga, the poetry teacher. He’s a good guy. That is, until clumsy, nervous, self-deprecating Angela seduces him with her words, her stories about forbidden love and desire between older men and younger women. We watch him watch himself fall for her, and like a car heading straight for a cliff, we see it coming, we can’t look away, and when it happens, it’s as devastating as it is unsurprising.

Blue Angel is a novel about ambition, class, and good intentions gone wrong. Life imitates art around every corner: Swenson’s novel Blue Angel is based on the movie At the Blue Angel, both being stories about men who ruin their lives to please a women who doesn’t love them back; his unfinished third novel is a retelling of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, an ambitious man’s struggle to rise to success in a rigid class system; and most obviously, Angela’s novel Eggs is about a high school student’s affair with her music teacher. Swenson knows the stories, yet when it happens to him, he is unable to stop it. When Angela starts dropping tactical hints about how much she thinks about him, or aggressively calls him ‘such a guy’ to break down their student-teacher relationship, he doesn’t see the wood for the trees. He’s a good guy.

Other reviews I've read call Blue Angel a satire of modern academia. I read it as a character study. Swenson is a hilariously hopeless middle-aged man who has been cruising along so comfortably that he’s forgotten how to take control of his own life. When Angela eventually accuses him of sexual harassment and he is put on trial for a much more extreme version of events than he experienced, the truth almost doesn’t matter anymore. He just drifts along with it all, carried by the waves of scandal just like he’s let himself get carried towards them, leaning into the attraction a 19-year old engineered in him.

I found Blue Angel hugely entertaining, and I’m a little sad I’ve finished it already.


Author: Francine Prose
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: 2000
Rating: 4/5

Review | HOW TO BREAK UP WITH YOUR PHONE by Catherine Price

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Have you ever found yourself with your phone in your hand without remembering how it got there?

Have you ever stopped what you were doing and picked up your phone because your lizard brain craved Instagram so suddenly the decision wasn’t even conscious? One minute you’re writing an email, and the next your fingers are tapping the access code into your phone while on your computer screen the cursor blinks on a half-finished sentence.

It’s not easy to admit all of this, but I suspect I’m not the only one with that kind of experience. I think most of us know on some level that our phones have more power over us than we’d like them to have; for me it’s those moments when I suddenly find myself scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, like I’ve blacked out for a second. And that happens several times a day!

I don’t want to live my life this way, and in early March, I bought How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price.

**

The book is split into two parts: part 1, the ‘wake-up’, is an info-dump designed to put the fear of technology in you. It explains what phones do to our brains, especially our attention spans, ability to multitask, and our mental health, including stress levels and sleep hygiene. Spoiler alert: it’s not good news.

Part 2, the ‘break-up’, is a 30-day programme designed to slowly wean you off your phone and, in week 4, reintroduce healthier habits. It encourages you to take a look at your phone use, introduces mindfulness habits, and, yes, asks you to delete your social media apps.

**

Tracking your phone use via an app (in my case, Moment) was an interesting experiment. According to Catherine Price, who quotes Moment itself, the average user spends about 4 hours a day on their phone. Think about that: FOUR of your waking hours. Of course not all of this is wasted (think maps, calculator, meditation apps, calendar apps, writing notes, chatting to lovely people), but let’s be honest: it’s so easy to get sucked into spending twenty minutes on Twitter when all you wanted to do is turn off your alarm.

**

My favourite part of the programme, however, has got to be the 24hr blackout, or ‘trial separation’. Yes, it’s what it sounds like: 24 hours without your phone. Without screens in general. No internet. No chatting. No Google Maps. Live like it’s 1991.

I did my 24hrs on Saturday last Easter weekend, which I’d decided to spend alone. I had a headache and no real capacity for being productive, so I just wandered the streets in an area that I know relatively well, given I hadn’t prepared for this at all and not looked up any maps. I’m not going to say this day changed my life (I actually found it quite concerning how much I twitched for my phone every time I waited for the bus or train. Habits, man), but somewhere in the early afternoon, a kind of calm settled on me. I got lost on my way to the bookshop, which hasn’t happened in forever. In the queue to the loos at the British Museum (it’s a very long queue) I suddenly got assaulted by very random unpleasant memories that seemed to have sensed I was without the protection of Instagram. But I dealt with them.

In the later afternoon, I settled in a café to read and write, and watch. Everybody was on their phone, hunched over their coffee, scrolling. Some people sat close enough that they could have belonged to each other, but it was hard to tell given that they didn’t interact with one another. The only ones in my immediate vicinity not on their phones were a group of well-off middle-aged women, who’d bought several slices of cake and cut them into four pieces each to share. They were having a blast. The whole picture reminded me how, as someone who likes writing, it’s so easy to get sucked into platforms like Instagram and Pinterest for ‘inspiration’, when the real inspiration (i.e. life) is often in front of us.

**

I’m done with my 30 days now. I don’t think my life has changed, really. Not dramatically. But I remember that day offline and how much time there was in it, how much capacity for attention I had. In the chapter on social media, Price talks about attention. ‘[O]ur attention is the most valuable thing we have,’ she says. ‘We only experience what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to.’

That quote has stuck with me. My phone background now says, ‘What do you want to pay attention to?’ (a tip from the book) Never stop asking this question. If your attention is the most important thing you have, do you want to spend it on your phone right now? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes, the question makes me put my phone back in my pocket, so I can focus my attention where I want it to be.

We’ve come to accept that there’s an app for everything, including our mental and physical wellbeing. It feels disorienting to put away all our apps in search for a solution when we’ve learned to see them as a lifeline, something to hold on to. It wouldn’t say this book has taught me anything I didn’t know already, but in the absence of picking up my phone, it was something else to hold on to. I enjoyed my morning ritual of reading the day’s challenge and have since replaced it with meditation. I still have a long way to go in how I use my phone, but this book has been a nudge in the right direction.


Author: Catherine Price
Publisher: Trapeze
Publication Date: March 2018
Rating: 4/5


Last but not least, I would also like to leave you with this video by Anthony Ongaro that just blew my mind. In case you needed more arguments.

Review | HUNGER by Roxane Gay

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Today I noticed how every time I see a small child with a crisp packet in their hands, I have to keep myself from judging the parents. There's nothing like the smell of crisps to transport me back to my own youth: the greasy combination of oils and strong chemical tastes; the fizzy drinks that came along with them; that deep, desperate feeling of being sluggish and fat and gross.

I wasn't fat, but I grew up in an environment where being fat, feeling fat and the desire not to be fat have always been topics, and I suppose like most females on this planet I feel some level of societal pressure not to be ‘fat'.

It makes me feel strange and guilty using this word to refer to myself, having just read Roxane Gay's Hunger. I'm very aware that I have never been fat, or even overweight. While my personal feelings about my body may be one thing, I have never experienced life in a society that sees me as fat. There are so, so many experiences that I haven't had, that I can barely imagine anyone else ever having (like strangers removing items from a food cart that they disapprove of – my mind is still reeling from that one). Hunger is an important (and rare) record of those experiences, and the emotions that go along with it.

But there's a lot more in there to unpack – there is sexual assault, race, and the ever returning topic of (self-)worth, and the struggle to feel deserving: of love; of respect; of care, from oneself and others.

In a beautiful interview with Jenny Zhang for the Rookie Podcast, Roxane Gay has talked about those struggles, and the persistent feeling that haunted her since her teens: ‘This is all there is? How disappointing.' There's a beautiful, comforting moment during that interview where both of these wonderful, talented people talk about that loneliness, the feeling that life just might not be for them, something that can persist over years and years no matter how much work we put into dealing with life. Others feel like this too. Awesome people feel like this too.

Apart from the many other things it does, Hunger chronicles, with incredible honesty, one person's journey with those feelings. Sometimes the chapters are hard-hitting (there are a few about relationships that are particularly hard to read); sometimes they are hesitatingly gentle (like the one about cooking a Blue Apron meal and the attempt to nourish her body well). Overall, it is a journey – a very long, hard journey with some ups and many downs.

I don’t want to be relieved when a relationship ends. I have things to offer. I am nice and funny and I bake really well. I no longer want to believe I deserve nothing better than mediocrity or downright shoddy treatment. I am trying to believe this with every fiber of my being.

I cannot properly review this book without being more open than I want to be or am able to be. Which in a way is a shame – as she writes, sharing our histories (of violence) is important: 'It informs how I move through the world. It informs how I love and allow myself to be loved. It informs everything.' And by sharing our history in our own words, we gain control over them.
But I am not that brave, and that's just how it is.

But I can tell you, who is reading this, to read this book, and be inspired – to be better and kinder to your fellow humans; to be better to yourself; to tell your own story. We need more books like this, especially in times of the #MeToo movement when finally, someone is listening. We need more people to come forward and remind us that life is messy, and painful, and that everyone is fighting some kind of battle. And only if we know what these battles are, and all the many shapes they can take, and that they can be a massive part of us without defining us – then we can move through the world with open minds and be compassionate, and kind, and considerate to each other. That's the world I want to live in.


Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Corsair
Publication date: June 2017
Rating: 5/5

Review | LULLABY by Leïla Slimani

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I don't know why I keep reading psychological thrillers, guys.

This short novel about a 'killer nanny' (hey, someone at the publisher decided to put that quote on the back) is set in Paris. Myriam and Paul, a young couple with two children, decide to make the financial sacrifice and employ a nanny, so Myriam can go back to her work as a lawyer. They find Louise, a fragile-looking white woman in her forties, who seems to be the perfect Mary Poppins: the children love her, the house is always spotless, and her food is the centre of dinner parties.
Until one day, Louise murders both children.

So far, so intriguing.

If I had one piece of advice to give about this book, it would be to read it in one sitting. It's short enough at just a little over 200 pages, and the suspense is drawn so tightly over the plot that I don't recommend breaking it up, which was the mistake I made.

While the book touches on the inner lives of Paul and Myriam in a neutral kind of way that makes them seem human (if not people you want to be friends with), the main focus is Louise. As the story goes on we learn about her past in snippets, although the most interesting chapters are certainly told from her daughter's perspective, Stéphanie. Now that I think of it, I would have preferred a book about Stéphanie.

But we're stuck with her mother, a woman who doesn't belong into the world she has made herself fit into. As Louise burrows herself further into the family's life, they become her only reason to wake up, yet at the same time she is unable to relate to them. Not only is she 'the nanny'; but her background, we learn, is so vastly different to theirs that they seem to exist on a whole different level where neither can reach out to the other, no matter how closely they live together.

Solitude was like a vast hole into which Louise watched herself sink. Solitude, which stuck to her flesh, to her clothes, began to model her features, making her move like a little old lady. Solitude leapt at her face at dusk, when night fell and the sounds of family lives rose from the surrounding houses. The light dimmed and the murmur grew louder: laughter, panting, even sighs of boredom. (p.86)

I'm here for any book that captures loneliness well, and Lullaby does this. What it doesn't do is draw me in and make me care about any of the characters, and I can't quite pinpoint why that is. The arrangement of chapters feels random at times, and the murder that sells the book seems almost irrelevant as the narratives goes to describe – not explain – Louise. The suspense, which gradually builds throughout the story, stacking up like a house of cards with some beautifully chilling moments, stumbles towards the end and collapses into a sad heap. I found the ending so unsatisfying I actually wondered whether I had checked out momentarily while reading it; I felt disoriented, like I'd missed something.

I don't know if it's the book or the genre, but I always feel bad when I read a psychological thriller and think, I've seen this before. I've read this before. I end up disappointed almost every time. Lullaby is no different, and I don't know if it's worth the hype.


Author: Leïla Slimani, translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Faber&Faber
Publication date: 11th January 2018
Rating: 3/5