Archive | January, 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

29 Jan

I just finished Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, ‘Big Brother’ and it was one of the most moving books I’ve read in years.  I suppose I didn’t expect to like it too much – having read Shriver’s well-renowned ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, which I thought was clever and provocative but not as moving as I had anticipated, I prepared myself for what I thought would be another ‘issue’ book and I’ve always been a little sceptical about books that are dominated by a contemporary issue in society, in this case: obesity.

I don’t know if it is because the characters in the novel seem so real and true to life, especially Pandora, the protagonist who has to deal with the shock of seeing her older brother lose himself and his motivation in life; or whether it’s the knowledge that Shriver is clearly writing from the heart (her older beloved brother, Greg died of obesity a couple of years ago) that makes the story so readable and so moving.

lionel shriver

Perhaps it’s even closer to me as I have experienced what it’s like to see someone close to you eat themselves to death (my late father) and how it’s easy for the average person to take the moral highground, wagging their finger and condemning those who are fat.  We often ignore the multitude of factors such as depression, disillusionment and inadequacy that can lead one to pile on the pounds and focus instead on the aesthetics of it.  But the truth is, a significant number of obese people who undergo gastric band surgery regain the weight within a few years which suggests there’s something deeper here, and the main goal isn’t to get slim, or what many would deem a ‘normal’, ‘functioning’ member of society again.  Shriver’s writing made me loo really look at our complex relationship with food and how we often associate eating very little with purity or cleanliness, a way almost to feel superior, better, holier than fat people.

I’ve read many reviews of this book that complain about the twist towards the end, saying that they, the reader, ended up feeling manipulated and that ultimately it fell flat.  I don’t want to ruin it for those that haven’t read the book (and I would urge you to do so) but I completely disagree with these reviews.  Instead, I found the twist actually enhanced  the story, making it even more believable and bittersweet, and our understanding of Pandora as well as making us question how much influence we really have over our loved ones.  Pandora is an amazing protagonist – likeable, flawed, conflicted and fallible and her relationship with her brother who has spiralled into a cycle of self-destruction feels all too real.  Haunting stuff.

Happy Days at the Young Vic

26 Jan

On Friday, I marked the end of my exams with a visit to the Young Vic in Southwark to watch Samuel Beckett’s play, ‘Happy Days’, starring the amazingly talented Juliet Stevenson. I’d seen the elusive posters all over the tube and I’ve always like the Young Vic, what with its reasonable ticket prices and delicious food in its renowned restaurant, The Cut (the sweet and spicy pulled pork burger is a winner, I’m told).

I don’t know much about Samuel Beckett but I knew the basic premise of a woman, Winnie, who is literally stuck in the earth up to her waist in some scorched wasteland. She whiles away the time with her various rituals and her husband, Willie, is fully mobile but detached and uninterested in his wife’s preambles. I’d seen the comments about the play – ‘a hilarious account of extinction’, The Telegraph – so I’d assumed it would be relatively light-hearted, so I was ill prepared for such a dark, melancholic portrayal of human nature. The visuals themselves were great and the sight of Winnie emerging from the ground was disturbing to say the least.
happy days

The majority of the play is Winnie talking out loud, trying to encourage her husband to interact with her but this happens very seldomly. Winnie comes across as a likeable woman, a woman who always tries to look on the bright side of life but whose optimistic sayings and positive phrases hide a depth of darkness and sorrow. Willie (played incredibly convincingly by David Beames), despite his mobility, comes across as a crawling, repulsive, almost subhuman creature in contrast with Winnie’s vivaciousness and need to feel alive. There is an almost Big Brother element to the play; an alarm (which literally made me jump out of my skin each time it sounded) that seemed to control Winnie who tried to order her day around these external constraints.

The play is separated into two acts, with the second act shorter and darker than the first. In the second act, Winnie is now buried in the earth up to her neck and can no longer conduct some of her previous rituals, such as brushing her hair or teeth. She is slowly being enveloped in the earth and Willie seems to have abandoned her. There is a sense of haunting despair in the second act, and I was constantly impressed with Stevenson’s ability to act only with her face. The oppressiveness of the earth and the futility of Winnie’s body lead her to become more introspective and reminisce about former times when Winnie and Willie first married and her loneliness becomes even more pronounced.

I found the play hauntingly moving, although I think some of the monologue was rather repetitious, which actually led to the woman in front of us falling asleep for most of the first act! I understand this only served to enhance Winnie’s aloneness -she is talking out loud, and using language as a form of reassurance and proof of her existence – but it sometimes lacked flow and movement. Overall, a haunting, fascinating exploration into human nature and our need for human relationships but definitely not an easy watch!

General life stuff

19 Jan

January is my “exams month” so revision seems to have sucked up any fun time, and I have spent the last few weeks imprisoned in my room, emerging only to scramble around in the kitchen for food (for the tenth time that day).  That inevitably leads to a mini sulk as I bemoan the fact that there’s never any chocolate or anything sugar or in general bad for me that will make me feel temporarily better.

Christmas and the festive season seems to be a bit of a blur: I was ill with a virus that left me virtually bed-bound over the holidays and the stormy weather meant that we enjoyed a lovely power cut on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  So perhaps I’m a little behind in saying this, and I know everyone has already, but I can’t quite believe we’re in 2014.  On the whole, I think 2013 was a good year and I’m pretty excited to start a new year – I know a lot of it is pseudo-psychological rubbish and if you really want to, you can set yourself goals any time of the year, but there is something nice about starting a new year with a renewed sense of motivation to better yourself.

But I can’t really embrace this ‘new start’ as I become a monster when I’m revising so maybe I’ll delay the new, better, shinier Jade to emerge at a more convenient time. In the meantime, I’ll continue to procrastinate to the point of ridiculousness; the other day, I spent a good hour online watching old 90’s music videos on YouTube and searching for places to buy retro sweets,  probably because I was wishing I could be transported back to my childhood.  And while I’m not the tidiest person at the best of times, my room currently resembles a hovel in which I spend most of my time drowning in sheets of paper with illegible handwriting.

I have tried my best to hermit crabembrace the life of a hermit for the last few weeks, which I feel I have adapted to worryingly easily, although I am aware that my sanity is slowly dripping away.


Just have to get to the end of this week.  Then onto one of my more fun resolutions (the first was to pass my exams…) which is to complete a short story I’m currently working on, and read something other than boring textbooks and notes on Powerpoint slides – how I have missed the allure of fiction.

Does Facebook induce feelings of depression?

5 Jan

I’m still trying to figure out the direction of causality – does social media cause feelings of depression, or do we actively go on social media when we’re feeling low as a means to justify wallowing in self-pity?

Social media became a big thing when I was around fourteen.  At first, it was MySpace which seemed full of girls with big, punk hair and kohl-rimmed eyes – a way of attracting boys, upping your social status and generally appearing ‘cool.’  Before anyone uploaded a photo onto their profile, it was meticulously scrutinised, Photoshopped and beautified.

Then when I was around seventeen, Facebook came into play.  At first, I found it refreshing compared to the beauty pageant stiffness of MySpace.  People’s profile pages seemed to be more reflective of their lives – photos uploaded were more natural and it seemed to be a really easy way to stay connected with people.  There are always more ‘people you may know’, and for a while you think to yourself, ‘Wow, I really am quite a popular person.’  Accepting friend requests fills you with a rush of adrenaline and once you’ve clicked ‘Accept’ you sit back, content, watching your network of ‘friends’ grow.

But then, you find your newsfeed filled with absolute trollop – mundane, gramatically incorrect statuses of that girl who lived on the same floor as you in your first year at uni, and that person you used to work with but never spoke to – and you know that it is rubbish yet you feel compelled to read each and every one.  And then you feel horrible because you have all these self-absorbed meanderings of others mushed into your brain instead of doing something that revitalises you, and makes you happy to be alive.

At my lowest point, my Facebook newsfeed seemed to be a cacophony of grating voices, pulling me down, making me convinced that I was “missing out”.  Missing out on what, I couldn’t really say.  But what it does seem to do is make you so aware of everyone else’s lives that you find yourself comparing yourself with everyone else.  Sure, you may look at the girl in primary school who didn’t invite you to her 6th birthday party and feel a sense of smug satisfaction when you realise she’s divorced at the age of 22 with three kids, but it works both ways.  You can find out your ex is going out with a supermodel, or a friend that hurt you is in a great job and living the dream.  Either way, you’re spending so much time absorbed in the lives of other people that you forget about your own.

Of course, for many people, social media incites none of these feelings of inadequacy and insecurity and can even increase feelings of wellbeing, which is why I’m inclined to think that social media doesn’t induce depressive feelings .  I’ve used it in the past as a semi-masochistic way of justifying why I feel so rubbish instead of actually staying with my feelings, which seem too unbearable to sit and listen to.  It’s basically a way to misplace my frustrations and vulnerabilities.  Of course, seeing people you used to know doing well means you’re right to be unhappy!  And sometimes, it’s easier to be ‘right’ than happy.

But what is incredibly important to keep in mind when engaging in social media is how little you can learn about someone by their profile page.  I used to think everyone’s lives were so much more fascinating than mine, oblivious to the fact that one’s social profile is entirely deliberate.  A carefully constructed manifestation of how we’d like to be perceived.

It took me a while to really understand that a photograph doesn’t convey a whole story but a tiny fragment of a bigger picture, and that tiny fragments can be entirely misleading.   It’s when you can’t understand it for what it really is that social media can have a devastating impact on your wellbeing; it can convince you that everyone is experiencing so much more and what you have can never feel enough.