Book Review: Hysterical

Hysterical

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“When a person has to repeatedly adjust their emotions to accommodate outside expectations, it leads to emotional exhaustion”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions does exactly what the strap line claims. Written by a behavioural scientist, it offers a methodical and detailed exploration of why the myth of gendered emotions was established – and continues to be perpetuated. It looks at the language of emotion across different cultures, although points out that most scientific research has been carried out in Europe or America. Much of this was flawed, in ways that are explained, with the science also suffering from selection bias and prejudice.

There are many references to historical texts which reinforce the belief that men are naturally superior to women. In men, emotional expression is assumed situational; in women it is assumed to be innate and irrational.

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.”

There is much psychology and anthropology in the research cited and discussed. Although written in accessible language, prior interest in the subject will likely increase reader enjoyment. The gendered imbalances and assumptions can be rage inducing, especially as this reaction would likely be regarded as proof of my weak little female emotional incontinence.

“The beliefs that some groups were more or less emotional started many centuries ago, and since then we have seen what was thought of as a ‘civilising’ process, a linear progression from emotion to reason, with education being used to teach people how to control their ‘primitive’ faculties”

The author comes at her subject from a great many angles, looking at how and why women were regarded as prone to hysteria. From ancient times to modern, they have had to adapt behaviour to survive. The societal pressure to conform comes at a mighty cost. Swallowing down an emotional response in order to act as society demands and expects has been shown over time to manifest as ailment – mental and physical.

“emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social positions”

Anger is a tool for claiming agency, and agency in women is rarely well received – ‘considered aberrational’. Attention is focused on calming her down, not to addressing whatever it was that made her angry. In men anger would more often be regarded as justified – as a righteous reaction to whatever riled him.

“Interpretations of behaviours and emotional expressions are largely determined by the stereotypes that we already hold … These stereotypes have persisted through history, and the gender roles and hierarchies have remained stable over time.”

The hierarchies discussed are certainly gendered but also affected by race and class. Societal expectations differ if a woman is pale skinned or dark. Likewise, a man’s anger may be more acceptable if he is white rather than black. From birth, children are taught to conform and absorb what pleases their caregivers, peers, and those wielding power over them.

It is not that the male and female brains are different – modern neuroscience studies have established this is a fallacy. However, brain ‘wiring’ is changed over time as behaviours are learned. There is also great difficulty persuading against entrenched perceptions. This is made even more difficult when media jumps on the slightest suggestion of gendered difference – reporting it for click bait.

“there are very few studies with large samples that show any sex differences, but they receive more attention than the many studies that do not show any sex differences in the brain”

The final chapter explores the effects of pornography and sexbots – the harnessing of artificial intelligence and robotic technology to provide men (it is mostly men) with their ‘ideal’ companion. Although marketed as a remedy for loneliness, the customised ‘dolls’ on the market have been developed with a focus on sexualised features that perpetuate the worst gendered stereotypes.

“The dream he describes is to create a perfect companion: one who is docile, comforting, submissive and always sexually available”

With young boys accessing pornography, there is the very real risk they will prove unable to view girls as equals with agency whose focus is not them and their needs.

“boys thinking that girls are only there to serve them, and girls thinking that their role is to be sexy or invisible”

The role of parents is discussed but does little to raise hope of changing such attitudes, gendered upbringing being subtly ingrained across generations. Time and again studies have shown that daughters are treated differently to sons. However well intentioned there remain differences in the way behaviours are encouraged or dismissed – and this can have a lasting impact.

Any Cop?: A great deal is covered in this wide ranging and fascinating exploration although much of it is a damning indictment of supposedly enlightened human behaviour. An important read, then, in raising awareness of bias and prejudice. A clarion call for base level change.

Jackie Law

Book Review: None of This Is Serious

none of this serious

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut has been likened to the published works of Sally Rooney. Although equally compelling, it is harder hitting and more authentic. The reader is placed inside the head of a modern day twenty-one year old named Sophie. It proves a troubling place to be.

Sophie lives with her parents in Dublin and has recently finished college where she studied politics. She has a close network of friends but feels more comfortable interacting via the internet. She is aware that her thoughts and views are coloured by what she compulsively reads there.

“I absorb it all like a sponge, trying to give my own thoughts substance. I hope for clarity, but instead my head is regurgitating content I’ve read on a loop. I don’t have anything to add.”

Sophie regards her generation as facing particular difficulties those older than her cannot comprehend. She is obsessed with house prices, unable to see how she will ever be able to climb onto the property ladder without the parental help many in her network benefit from. She has yet to find a job and has little enthusiasm for those she applies for. She despairs of the economic and political choices made by those in power, naively believing older generations do not understand their effects.

“The one advantage of the shift in political discourse to the online sphere is that no one over the age of forty understands what they’ve unleashed upon the world.”

Sophie over thinks everything, particularly her interactions with other people. She may struggle to articulate an original thought but can quote at length from online articles read. She hopes to come across as informed. This is not always the impression that lingers in social situations.

“I wish this whole exchange had been a message, so I could contemplate each individual word”

Social media is portrayed as both a minefield and an addiction. The story captures with honesty the disconnection between knowing posts are carefully constructed and curated, and being unable to disbelieve other people do not live and think as depicted.

“The flat holds a certain amount of mystery for me, the way physical spaces do. I’ve only ever seen pictures of it on Instagram or in the background of selfies”

The story being told is set during the summer following the completion of university degrees. Alongside the drunken nights out are milestone events: results come in; job offers are accepted; Sophie’s twin sister, Hannah, returns to the parental home from Glasgow; they celebrate their birthday; Sophie spends a weekend at a coastal summer house owned by her best friend Grace’s parents. What sets the unfolding tale apart is the spiralling voice of the narrator. Following Sophie’s life feels like watching a slow motion car crash.

In amongst her friends are some Sophie is closer to and can talk with more easily. When she becomes involved with potential boyfriends she turns to Grace for advice, sharing details of texts received before responding. She uploads certain information to group chats, and then wonders what is being discussed about her. She puts on a front of compliance when home with her family, knowing that her parents have no idea that she is always on edge around Hannah who has bullied her for many years. Sophie uses food as a coping mechanism and hates the way her body looks, especially when compared to that of her twin.

Alongside what is going on in the lives under scrutiny, a crack has appeared in the sky.

”Where there was only light pollution, how there’s a hairline fracture spanning as far as I can see in either direction. It’s lit from within by a violet glow that seeps across the night sky.”

Experts cannot explain how it was caused or if it is having any effect on the earth and its inhabitants. This dominates news coverage initially but, as with every major event, interest soon wanes when nothing new about it can be revealed.

“if the crack is merely an illusion, then parts of the world not bathed in its glow should be the last bastions of normalcy … Instead, there’s nothing about it. This could be evidence of a grand conspiracy, or simply because we’re not used to sending reporters to those places unless there’s been some kind of disaster, especially if we can catalogue the damage in dead white people. We aren’t used to looking at these places and thinking normal, so they don’t exist.”

It is left to the reader to deduce what metaphor the author intends by running with this strange occurrence. When the crack briefly does more than simply exist, this corresponds to a serious implosion in Sophie’s lived experience.

Although not a slow start, the story builds momentum that inexorably draws the reader further in. When Sophie’s choices cause a serious unravelling, her friends are initially supportive but quickly turn from this to cast judgement. What is so disturbing to consider is how familiar all these behaviours are, and the known effects on the victim. Existing online offers little scope for privacy, and supporting a person under fire can lead to personally damaging associations.

Throughout, Sophie actively seeks a path that will enable her to move forward from the stalemate in which she finds herself on leaving university. She views her parents’ lives as no longer attainable. Her feminist leanings dislike the pervading thought that a wealthy partner could make her life so much easier.

Any Cop?: This is a remarkable work of fiction that portrays the contemporary lifestyle of young people who benefit from numerous privileges but remain shadowed by pressures caused by the all pervading internet. It is the Black Mirror of Instagram perfection.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Good Man Jesus

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, is from Canongate’s Myths series – in which contemporary writers retell a myth in a new and memorable way. Pullman has pulled off quite a feat in taking the foundation story of the Christian religion and bringing the well known tales encompassing Jesus’s birth, ministry and death to readers in a fresh and enticing form. He explores how history is recorded – what is included and how this is intended to influence those of the future. The author asks challenging and thought-provoking questions but in a beautifully clear and simple way.

Major events covered in the biblical gospels are included in the story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus’s life and death. The key twist in the tale is that Mary gives birth to twin boys – Jesus and Christ.

As a boy Jesus is the volatile naughty one, often defended and thereby protected by his more considering and compliant brother. When Jesus becomes a preacher, Christ writes down his teachings that they may be remembered accurately. He is encouraged in this endeavour by a stranger who visits from time to time and takes care of the scrolls. Jesus comes across as raw and unswerving, passionate in what he promotes. Christ smooths his words out to make them more palatable and useful.

What do I mean by useful? Christ believes that the growing number of followers should be brought together in a church, with leaders appointed to continue the teaching and carry out the good works encouraged. When he spoke of this to his brother, Jesus vehemently opposed the idea. It was Jesus’s belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. No planning for the future was therefore needed. What mattered was to get people to repent of their sins and start to behave better, that they may be saved now.

The reader is offered a closer account of Christ than Jesus. It is easy to empathise with the thoughtful brother’s reasoning, even though with hindsight his hopes for the church appear naive. I was disappointed by the inclusion of one scene in which he chooses to sin – it seemed unnecessary and against character. Apart from that, the development of the brothers is skilfully rendered, especially as they come to realise how the wheels they have set in motion are heading in unintended directions, hurtling beyond their control. There is nothing magical in either of their actions. Crowds are always looking for something new and sensational to be a part of, and gossips interpret for attention as suits them.

I enjoyed the author’s Afterword in which he shares his personal views on God and religious belief. He asks: if time travel were possible, would church leaders try to prevent their Messiah being so barbarically put to death? Actions have consequences, as both Jesus and Christ discover to their cost.

I have enjoyed several of the Myths series and this easily stands with the best. It offers an imaginative take on the potential power of storytelling to control and influence. A fascinating and memorable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.

Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Library

Some books just speak to you. They seem to access a part of your soul that you weren’t even aware of; that you didn’t even know you needed. This is one such book. I’ve read other books by Matt Haig but none have affected me in the way that this did. I’m speechless. Everyone should read this. Everyone needs this magic in their lives.

This is a book about life, in all of its messy perfection. It’s a fantasy novel, in a way, but it also feels more real than most contemporary fiction. It’s almost impossible to review because it’s impossible to capture the feeling that it gives you – and you only get to experience a book for the first time once. I wouldn’t want to spoil that for anyone. I’ve rarely read a book and felt so profoundly moved.

“We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.”

The Midnight Library is an in-between place, somewhere between life and death. The protagonist, Nora, wants to die; her life has gone in a completely unexpected direction and she no longer has the will to keep herself alive. But instead of dying, she finds herself in a library of endless possibilities – a library where she can live out every other possible life, all the lives that could have happened if she had made different choices, from the large to the small. As she explores all of her other lives, Nora comes to profound realisations about her own – and what it means to be alive.

Matt Haig is known for his self-help books, and whilst this is fiction it has threads of those self-help books running through it. I suspect part of why I love this is that I read it at the perfect time – when I was in exactly the right frame of mind for it. Those who don’t like their books to be too ‘preachy’ may not enjoy this – but I imagine that most will appreciate the cleverness of the story and how well it gives its message.

There are no perfect things in life, so of course this isn’t a perfect book. But it comes close. I encourage everyone to read this book – read it, and seek joy in the small moments that make up humanity.

“It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make and the work we didn’t do and the people we didn’t marry and the children we didn’t have… but it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself.”

 

Published by Canongate
Hardback: 13 August 2020

Book Review: A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong, is part of the Myths Collection of novellas put out by publisher, Canongate, under the banner of The Canons. These (mostly) fabulous little books include ‘bold retellings of legendary tales, by the world’s greatest contemporary writers.’ I have so far reviewed:

The author of this latest read has been described as ‘one of our best living writers on religion’. Her style is factual but never didactic. She approaches her subject with insight and clarity, exploring how and why myths evolved with persuasive wisdom.

The book has seven chapters that take the reader from The Palaeolithic Period (hunter / gatherer communities) through to the present day. Opening with an explanation of what a myth is, Armstrong states

“mythology […] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

“mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality”

There are recurring reminders that myths are not intended to be read literally. In tough times (and life has always included such times in abundance) they offer a means by which man may experience transcendence.

“Spiritual flight does not involve a spiritual journey, but an ecstasy in which the soul is felt to leave the body.”

“one of the essential yearnings of humanity is the desire to get ‘above’ the human state.”

I recently reviewed The Idea of the Brain: A History,  by Matthew Cobb in which he explores, among other things, how centuries of scientific research has sought to understand the biology of man’s ability to reason and feel – ‘how neural activity is turned into thought’. Armstrong explains that, for millennia, ‘myth and reason were complimentary’. A fixation on logical explanation can be damaging to man’s well being.

 “A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”

Myths – or beliefs – also help man come to terms with change, enabling personal growth and acceptance of mortality. Throughout history, as lifestyles altered, myths developed to match what was needed. Hunter gatherer became agriculturalist and then urban dweller. Alongside, myths evolved into religions.

Ever changing cultures require suitable deities. Although countries around the globe named their gods differently, many of the stories and characteristics were similar. They reflected what was needed. They served the psyche of the people.

The importance of ritual is explored. These also changed as cultural practices altered but remained a vital component in creating a sense of the sacred.

With the advent of literacy, philosophers questioned the rationale behind beliefs and their practices.

“[Reason] was indispensable in the realm of medicine, mathematics and natural science”

“But when they wanted to find ultimate meaning and significance in their lives, when they sought to alleviate their despair, or wished to explore the inner regions of their personality, they had entered the domain of myth.”

“[Reason] had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require.”

Moving on to the period of enlightenment, myths were abandoned. Instances of depression were recorded amongst advocates.

“we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place.”

In the present day the author posits that ‘We still seek heroes’. Perhaps this explains celebrity culture, although what is offered through them is unbalanced adulation.

“The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.”

Armstrong suggests that literature could provide a solution.

“A novel, like a myth, teaches us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

I would contend that it is not just novels that can offer help. In a time of great change and fear for the future, this book provided me with a much needed hopeful outlook. Bad things happen, but will pass. Emotions need not always have a logical basis or justification. The purpose of myths is to encourage man to become: better, kinder, more generous and considerate.

This is a concise and well written history offering many ideas to ponder. A recommended read, especially in these uncertain times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Book Review: Another Planet

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Tracey Thorn is one half of pop duo, Everything But The Girl, the other half being her husband, Ben Watt. The couple met at Hull University in 1981 and have been together since – writing, making music, raising their three children. 

I had not heard of the author prior to picking up this book. I noticed the publicity when it (Thorn’s third memoir) was released in hardback but, put off by the photo on the cover, had ignored whatever was being said. What drew me to pay more attention was the premise, when I finally read it – a teenager growing up in middle class suburbia in the 1970s; my era. Aspirational parents were mentioned along with an ordinary, largely happy childhood. This is not a misery memoir yet the author rebelled. 

What is offered is an exploration of the stories we tell of ourselves – how and why we edit them – when family life appears felicitous to anyone else looking in, yet is the catalyst that drives a desire to escape, to break away from parental expectation.

Thorn kept diaries throughout her teenage years and these form the basis of her recollections. Always though she is looking back at the girl she was through the lens of her present day self – mid-fifties, successful in her field, a mother to adult children. 

The memoir is bookended by a day trip she makes to the suburban estate north of London where she was born and raised. Details have changed but much remains the same. She notices aspects previously missed despite the years she spent there. 

Interspersed with chapters that discuss her diary entries – what is written and, perhaps more importantly, what is not – are chapters giving background to: the place, life in the seventies, the pervading attitudes of middle class English parents who had lived through the war years. These offer a fascinating snapshot of a culture ingrained with stiff upper lipped snobbery and assumption that offspring will conform and provide a continuation of ideology. All this is presented with grace and candour. Thorn was bored and frustrated by her home life but recognises the influence it has had on her personal development.

“Always in the back of my head was a voice telling me to stop showing off. Don’t make a spectacle. Put that drink down. Shhhh.”

“If you didn’t talk about things, they weren’t happening. I was only thirteen, but I’d already learned the code.”

Thorn found her comfortable, conventional family life stultifying. Life in a commuter village surrounded by greenbelt left her feeling isolated from the excitement she craved.

“I was yearning for significance, looking everywhere for it.”   

“It strikes me that I’m talking about an imaginary place as much as a real one. If memory skews our perception, then the village I recall is semi-fictional, and I have to accept that my account isn’t neutral, or wholly truthful; it’s one-sided and irrational, constructed out of experiences and my reaction, sometimes over-reaction, to them.”

Thorn’s parents grew up in London but moved to the suburbs for what they believed would be a better life. Their social circle revolved around the groups to hand, their views aligning with those they mixed with. Thorn couldn’t bring herself to fit in with their values.

“But what if […] you’re being told you don’t have to believe in anything very much to join the church group, and no one seems interested in the arts, and everyone votes Tory and the golf club is racist, what then?”

Jan Carson wrote in The Stinging Fly of how seemingly endless boredom during hours spent listening to Presbyterian sermons led to vivid daydreams that inspired her early stories. Thorn also muses on the creative possibilities when formative years are spent bored and longing for escape from stifling prejudice.

“I’m thinking again about that idea that art flourishes in an unconducive environment, that suburbia is inspiring, surrounding you with ideas and people to reject.” 

For most of her teenage years, Thorn‘s concerns centred on boys, music, television and her social life.

“Current events rarely intruded into my little world, as I was a typically solipsistic teenager, and even when they did, my reaction was only to note the personal effect on me and my boring life.”

As she approaches adulthood, Thorn comes to realise that her parents and their peers were not as content with their lot as they liked others to think.

“The suburban dream suddenly seems creepy, as if its relentless NICEness is only pretend, and can’t survive without repressive conformity and wilful blindness.”

Although well written, candid and interesting, the format of this book sometimes lacks a smooth continuity. The reason becomes clear in the author’s end note. The book started as an essay and, over time, grew – “swallowing up some recent pieces of writing – reviews, articles and columns.” Thorn wrote these for other publications although points out they have been “chopped up, rearranged, in some cases rewritten” for inclusion here. Each chapter fits within her narrative but the story does not always flow as might be expected.

In many ways this is a typical story of life in middle class, middle of the road, family oriented England and, as such, offers a slice of life that garners little attention. Outwardly it appears so lacking in drama – teenage anger and frustration being routinely dismissed. As Thorn points out, many significant artists came from such backgrounds. As did many readers with whom this memoir will likely resonate. 

Any Cop?: Another Planet offers a softly spoken yet piercing history lesson – perhaps of value to the currently vocal looking back on the era with blinkered nostalgia. For those of us who grew up during the 1970s, it is also a trip down memory lane.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Girl meets Boy

Girl meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is from Canongate’s Myths series. It is woven around a retelling of the story of Iphis which originates in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Also briefly included is a story based on the early life of Lilian Lenton, a suffragette who became ill due to being force fed while in prison. How women are valued (or not) is a recurring theme, although this is far from a polemic. Rather it is a love story in which gender is merely one aspect of attraction, yet a significant one to the uninvolved who observe and then worry themselves about societal appearance.

Imogen and Anthea are sisters living in their grandparents’ house in Inverness. Their parents separated when they were young and this has coloured their relationship. Imogen stepped into her mother’s place when she was only seven years old. She feels responsible for Anthea, and frustrated when her sister acts in a way she regards as irresponsible.

Both girls work for Pure, a company marketing bottle water as an aspirational consumable. When a graffiti artist daubs the office signage with a message suggesting that selling a necessary and natural product in this way is wrong, Anthea is smitten and questions her faltering role in the creative team. Imogen is proud of her own success at the company, won by agreeing with the boss and going along with the banter of colleagues. She hopes for a promotion and is horrified by her sister’s behaviour.

Despite the brevity of the tale many issues are covered including: foetal selection by gender, eating disorders, the male gaze, expectations of women’s role in the workplace. All of this is secondary though to the happiness found in a mutual love affair. The girls may have been scarred by the actions of their parents but they were nourished by the tall tales told by their fun loving grandparents.

“it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse.”

Given that this tale is based on Metamorphoses, expect transformations. When they come their contemporary relevance is highly satisfying.

In many ways a humorous and quiet story, there are many thought provoking aspects that will linger. An enjoyable addition to a series of concise reimaginings from established and well regarded authors.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.

Book Review: Cure

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Medical research scientists are required to be rigorous in their investigations but also open minded to the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from the results of clinical trials. Drugs that show early promise may not be as effective when tested over the long term on a wide variety of subjects. Side effects of treatments and surgical interventions can be as harmful as the problems they attempt to resolve.

While doctors may be eager to find more effective treatments, particularly for the growing number of chronic conditions, there are deep seated biases against certain alternatives: homeopathic remedies, mindfulness and meditation, distraction techniques, hypnotism, religious belief. What Cure sets out to do is to look at the trials that have been undertaken around such so called woo woo treatments and scientifically question their efficacy.

The book opens with an investigation into the placebo – pills given to patients that are known to contain no active ingredient, or treatment that has been shown not to work after accounting for the placebo effect in test results. Time and again trials show that many patients’ outcomes improve when given a placebo. The author asks why such a cheap and easy alternative is not offered when it could have clinical value. It is now known that the body is capable of producing its own powerful drugs, e.g. endorphins. The brain is a natural pharmacy.

“If someone takes a placebo and feels their pain melt away, it isn’t trickery, wishful thinking, or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug.”

There are important limitations in the placebo as treatment; it is limited to the natural tools that the body has available.

“Placebos are good at influencing how we feel but there’s little evidence that they affect measures we’re not consciously aware of”
“Feeling great isn’t everything. We also want to be kept alive.”

Yet for those who do not feel great, placebos could offer a welcome improvement in the way they live. Certain patient groups, especially those with chronic conditions such as CFS / ME, reject that the mind can have such an important impact as they then feel they are being blamed for their illness. This separation of the mind and the body, and the biases such thinking uncovers, may be one reason why the treatments looked at in this book are often dismissed.

Another reason is the difficulty of obtaining funding for large scale clinical trials. Drugs companies are unlikely to support investigations into treatments that will lead to fewer expensive drugs being administered.

Living with long term stress has been shown to create physiological damage and to rewire the brain.

“people in a threat state take longer to recover to baseline once a task is over […] Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension. And as we’ve seen, repeated activation of cortisol can damage the immune system.”

The author investigates a variety of alternative treatments that attempt to train the body to deal with challenges and decrease the harm caused.

“Just as with physical exercise, if we put our bodies under a manageable amount of stress, then go home and rest, this eventually makes us stronger and more resilient.”

The effects of meditation and mindfulness are studied and compared to the effects of antidepressants. Once again, certain patients enjoy benefits yet many medical practitioners dismiss such treatments as nonsense, the proponents delusional. Prejudices are strong.

One problem with alternative and holistic treatments is the way modern medicine is practiced. In the UK an initial consultation typically involves a ten minute GP appointment with the expectation at the end that there will be a prescription or potential for surgical intervention. There may not be a pill for every ill but there could be minimally invasive and effective treatment if the patient is willing.

Drugs for stress, depression and chronic pain are costly with damaging side effects such as risk of addiction. Trials have shown time and again that mind-body techniques can work better on many. Despite the evidence, stigma remains.

Religion is shown to have a placebo effect although only if compassionate and accepting rather than threatening. A sense of belonging – the importance of community and damage caused by loneliness – are also investigated. There is a beneficial effect on health when a patient feels they are a part of something bigger.

“the prolonged impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful”

The author is asking: if an alternative treatment works for a patient then why mock and dismiss it? It is clearly stated that a patient may not simply wish themselves better yet there are ways in which the conscious mind can influence outcomes and deal better with painful situations. There is also the argument that keeping alternative medicine within the NHS allows for regulation and the ability to offer conventional treatments as needed. The potential for harm is acknowledged, such as when proven beneficial medications such as vaccines are withheld for spurious reasons.

Each chapter contains details of a variety of patients’ experiences alongside interviews with clinicians and references to papers and journals in which studies are detailed. Throughout, the writing is warm and accessible, the tone clear and inquiring rather than dogmatic. The reader may decide for themselves if improvements in health are worthwhile even if treatment cannot always be fully, scientifically explained in the traditionally accepted way.

Any Cop?: This is a fascinating approach to a controversial subject. The author offers due diligence and a willingness to look for facts without prejudice. The workings of the mind may not yet be fully understood by doctors but this doesn’t mean it cannot be harnessed for innovative and effective treatments. The book offers a compelling and persuasive contribution to a wider conversation. It may change the way rational and informed readers view alternative medicine.

 

Jackie Law