Random Musings: On Mattering

dance cartoon

I recently reviewed an excellent and highly readable academic textbook by Caroline Magennis, Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles. One of the quotes I pulled from it set me thinking.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

This was on dancing, which Ian Paisley preached was sinful. Growing up as I did in Northern Ireland, many pleasurable activities were regarded this way. Sex was the obvious one. At home, at school and at church it was drummed into girls that to indulge in sexual activity would be to bring down not just the wrath of God but also shame on the family – one of the worst things it was possible to do. No mention was made of consent. Short skirts were an indication that the girl was up for it. Boys were portrayed as creatures incapable of controlling their urges. Looking at pictures of myself as a teenager, I often dressed like a middle aged woman.

At this point I will admit that, having escaped to England and lived to be a middle aged woman, I now regularly wear short skirts. It took a long time for me to understand that my sex life should be nobody else’s concern.

What really hit me in the quote above was that it alleged a woman could matter. This, to me, was radical thinking. Women existed to serve – the family, the Lord, husband and children. To consider self was selfish, frowned upon.

In Belfast I was expected to be a good girl, to keep secret any behaviours deemed suspect such as drinking alcohol. This, despite the fact my parents and their friends were regular imbibers. Many aspects of how we lived were certainly never to be mentioned when duty visiting the wider family. It made it hard to have natural conversations with them.

It was expected that, in time but while still young, I would marry a nice boy from a similar background. Not too rich as his family’s affluence would make my parents feel inferior. Not too poor as my parents had successfully risen from this. And definitely not a Catholic, although no other religion was even considered a possibility.

It was vital that, on marriage, I hold on to my husband. To this end, staying thin was more important than academic or professional attainment. Throughout my life, my mother expressed more delight when I lost weight than any other of my achievements. I was expected to be submissive and pleasing – in looks and behaviour.

At a work team building event I was once asked to share with the group something I was proud of achieving. I could think of nothing except pride was a sin. In many ways I had done everything my parents asked of me, other than stay in Ireland. I could never shake the need to please – not a bad thing in itself, of course, but beneath that is the belief that my needs and desires do not matter greatly.

My English mother-in-law had an unshakeable belief in the rightness of her opinions. This attitude entirely flummoxed me. Women deferred, took up as little space as possible, whilst ensuring others’ wishes were met without fuss. When I occasionally pushed back, refusing to do something that was expected of me as I recognised it would be personally damaging, my perceived selfish intransigence caused rifts that may never fully heal.

To matter requires that one be valued. To this day I struggle to accept that I am worth anything more than the services I provide. I know I am loved but am less sure of being intrinsically valued for what I am as an individual. Being of use brings me pleasure, but to be able to dance through life without being derided must feel amazing.

Another book I reviewed recently, Aurochs and Auks, placed humans in the wider context of our planet – just one species among many, although highly damaging in our behaviour. This chimed with me. It matters how we behave because of the potential damage caused by self-entitlement, to our life support system and also each other. My upbringing focused on being pleasing for the benefit of church and family. Perhaps to add value, and therefore to matter, is to live more in tune with our place in all the spaces we impact.

Random Musings: Ending my literary event hiatus

I last attended a literary event in April last year. Prior to that, for several years, I had been averaging around one event a month. I kept an eye on the author talks happening in Bath and Bristol bookshops. I would treat myself to the occasional trip to London. I enjoyed immersing myself in the rarefied literary world – a mostly invisible audience member who made sure never to put their hand up during the final Q&A to make ‘more of a comment than a question’. My fear of attracting the contempt of participants resulted in me keeping thoughts to myself until my write-up.

I became aware of this contempt from following authors on Twitter and reading their blogs. They would post mostly humorous but still biting opinions on aspects of their publicity tours – from the unflattering high stools they were required to perch upon to the boringly repetitive questions they would be asked: where do you get your ideas from? are your characters based on real people? what is your writing process?

Lengthy journeys to previously unknown locations, the loneliness of a strange town, the need to perform – all would be recounted as an adventure yet also a trial. While empathising I began to wonder if authors wanted to take part at all.

And yet, authors write that going to events is a great way of supporting them as they don’t wish to read to empty rooms.

Perhaps there should be audience guidelines as we don’t always know what behaviour is acceptable. Regulars will audibly sigh when a question becomes a monologue. There will be people attending who are genuinely interested in how a writer creates their work, who don’t yet understand there is no formula, and that finding the right words then putting them in the right order can be tantamount to magic. Aspiring authors are eager to feed off success, to learn how this writer got published that they may do the same. I have observed so many audience members who could be fans but obviously covet the literary achievement.

Audience members will not always know what questions have likely been asked before, sometimes ad nauseam.

There are other aspects of events that have unspoken rules. I still cringe when I think of the author I asked to sign my copy of his book before the event, who hadn’t been provided with a green room to shelter in. I regret not taking the opportunity to chat to an author I admire who remained sitting at his little table after the long signing queue had been dealt with. I had forgotten to bring my copy of his title and didn’t feel I could approach him without being able to prove I had made the purchase. Maybe he was happier to be left in peace.

I still don’t know if asking an author to sign a proof copy is frowned upon.

Benjamin Myers recently wrote a fine article on the pressures, sometimes self inflicted, that authors suffer and the difficulty of saying no to promotional work (you may read it here). He is not alone. The last couple of times I made plans to see Joanna Cannon in Bath she couldn’t make it due to health issues. Authors cannot always cope with the demands made of them to promote their work.

I have been lucky enough to meet Ben at a couple of events and he comes across as friendly and genuine – a joy to chat to. Other authors are more obviously performing. Some exude warmth, others remain distant. They are individuals and, in the context of our encounters, are working.

Many writers talk of being introverts. Prolific readers, those of us with an interest in literary events, are often introverts too. Acceptable social etiquette is not always obvious and we will dwell on perceived indiscretions.

There is another side to this coin. Bookshops often rely on the revenue from author events to keep their business going. It is for this reason that I am planning to end my hiatus. I want to support the authors and their publishers. I also want to keep the oasis that a bookshop represents in existence on the high street.

To start with though I am attending a publisher’s roadshow where they introduce the media and booksellers to authors with new work to promote. Events such as these come with few expectations other than to engage and then consider supporting the books. I am looking forward to an enjoyable evening amongst those who share my passion for a variety of literature.

I prefer small, more intimate events to large capacity gatherings. I wonder which of these authors favour – as they hope to sell their books I am guessing the latter.

And here I also encounter a dilemma. One of my prerequisites to attending a literary event is that I have read the author’s work that I may better understand where they are coming from. I write up my impressions within a few days and can add more depth if I am familiar with the book being promoted. I will often still buy a copy on the night, but this is not always a given. I ponder if this makes me welcome at all.

Random Musings: The value of a review written by an author’s friend

It is hard to approach a book written by someone known personally without bias. Even accepting a book from an author rather than their publisher establishes a connection, however tenuous, and with that comes a feeling of personal obligation. All is well if the book can be reviewed in a timely manner, and if writing and plot development impress, but this is not always going to be the case. Much as I wish to support those who provide us with books, reviews are for potential readers.

Authors get to know each other in the course of their work, of course they do, especially nowadays when they are expected to attend and perform at so many promotional events for their publications. Perhaps initial contact is made online via social media, or through closed discussion forums they are invited to join. Connections are made and then built upon. It can be mutually beneficial to publicly share news and interviews relating to each other’s work. Authors become cheerleaders not just for their own output – and favours are returned. Nurturing connections is a smart tactic as well as providing welcome support in what can be a lonely occupation.

As arts sections in newspapers and magazines increasingly face cutbacks, more of their book reviews are written by authors. These contributors are also readers and do, after all, know how to string words together. Such commissions provide a welcome source of income – however reduced the remuneration these days – with the additional advantage of that footnote of publicity for an author’s own publications.

Proof copies are also sent to established authors in the hope of acquiring a pithy and positive quote that may be included on a cover or flyleaf. I am not the only reader who has expressed disquiet on social media recently when promotional quotes are sourced from amongst the author’s known colleagues or friends.

I am wary of the impartiality, the veracity, of reviews written by certain authors for newspapers. I do not mean to imply that the reviewer is not writing what they think but rather to suggest that their bias does not make them the most useful critic of the text. One regular reviewer for the Guardian newspaper has stated that she only writes positive reviews, handing on to others books she cannot recommend. Knowing this, and her writing style, I have stopped reading her reviews as I already know they will gush praise. Authors and publishers may love her but how useful is her output for a wider readership looking for a critique that will help them decide if the book might be for them?

Getting too close to the book industry has an impact. Personal connections lead to compromises when deciding how to phrase an opinion. The arts world is full of sensitive souls who nurse scars caused by words that have cut them. Nobody wishes to hurt their friend.

Established book reviewers, including some of the better known book bloggers – many of whom have branched out into other aspects of book production and promotion – are understandably fêted by publishers. They work within a comforting bubble that tells them how valued their work is. I have been on the edge of this and stepped back. It made it harder to write reviews without prejudice. My honesty may not always be appreciated by industry insiders. I remind them that any review is, after all, just one person’s opinion.

Perhaps this is why, for all their flaws, reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are the go to for most potential readers. The ridiculous 1* reviews for unread books or other illogical complaints are easily ignored. A variety of opinions, both positive and negative, are useful so long as reasoning is explained.

Book blogging became a thing because readers wanted to know what people like them, with no connections to the rarefied world of the book industry, thought of titles they were considering reading. Blogs are useful in spreading the word about books that do not get the spin of a huge publicity budget. They can raise the profile of gems that defy marketing categorisation.

Over the years I have observed bloggers come and then go as they grow disillusioned when they see others garner plaudits and recognition while they feel underappreciated. I would contend that these still impartial voices – those who read what they choose and then express their views coherently, without feelings of obligation – provide value for the many ordinary, non partisan readers.

Random Musings: The TLS didn’t ask but I’m answering anyway – Twenty Questions

I enjoy reading the Times Literary Supplement’s Twenty Questions, in which Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing their favourite books, writing habits and best advice. Many of those featured are playful with their answers. Some come across as generous and unassuming. Others appear a tad pretentious, or perhaps that is the nature of the questions. They encourage a particular shade of cleverness be revealed.

I read a great deal and have done for many years yet it is unlikely I would be regarded, by those who consider themselves the literary elite at least, to be well read. There are too many tomes I have not chosen to pick up, or readily admit to not enjoying. I sometimes ponder who decides on the intellectual worth of a book and why they value their personal opinion so highly.

As a little exercise I decided I would answer the TLS questions. I am a writer and a thinker, although not, perhaps, the sort the TLS had in mind.

I’m doing this for fun, because I want to, and it’s my blog so I can.

 

What is your favourite book published in the past twelve months?

Choosing favourites is hard. Also, what will be enjoyed and appreciated changes with circumstances. In my Books of 2018 post I narrowed my recommendations down to 15 books from around 160 read in that year. Since then, from 90 or so books finished, I would add: a short story collection, Witches Sail In Eggshells by Chloe Turner; a poetry collection, Vertigo and Ghost by Fiona Benson; a couple of translated novels, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel); and half a dozen other works of fiction – The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, Leonard and Hungry Paul by by Rónán Hession, The Offing by Benjamin Myers.

What subject have you found it most challenging to write about?

Men and how so many of them think about and treat women. Their apparent inability to interact with us as they would each other continually perplexes me and I find this disconnect difficult to articulate in any meaningful way. We are all human, with differences and similarities that cross the lines of gender.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

Have you heard of the authors listed in my favourite books list above? They each deserve your attention. The small, independent publishers are discovering many writers deserving wider acclaim – spread the word and read their work.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Dickens. I’ve read many of his novels in an effort to discover why he continues to be highly regarded and widely read.

I am, however, a strong advocate for readers choosing books they enjoy over books they think they should read because some self-appointed arbiter of literary taste tells them it is necessary if they are to be admitted to the high table of literary conversation.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Be yourself (it is incredibly stressful trying to be anything else).

This feeds into the best advice on writing I have been given – to find my own style rather than try to copy someone else. We can all improve by reading others’ work but if it already exists seek out the original.

To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?

Politics is about a person’s beliefs and actions. Writers wish to be read, to have their voices heard. Stories enable them to disseminate their views and thereby influence readers’ thinking. So yes, writing is political, although often in a subtle, cloaked manner.

Do you have any writing tics?

I expect so but until someone points them out to me I will remain unaware of them.

What is the first thing you wrote?

The letter A.

As a teenager I wrote poetry. In a little black book. Thankfully this was destroyed, along with my extensive collection of personal letters and souvenirs from my first 23 years of life, before I moved from Belfast to Wiltshire.

For reasons I can no longer remember I let my sister read one of those poems, one I was particularly pleased with at the time. She told me it would hurt my parents’ feelings. I still struggle finding the balance between expressing myself honestly, as I need to, and being mindful of the potential impact.

How, in your opinion, should we measure a book’s success?

Reader reaction, especially over the longer term. I dislike when new books are rated based on how they sell in the first few months after publication. Continuing reader recommendation over time is a more valuable measure.

What do you read on holiday?

I tend to take short breaks and cram as much activity into those few days away as I have energy for. Most of my holiday reading is therefore done on the journey. I choose books I expect to hold my attention but also be easy to set down without losing the thread. I may choose a thriller, or a story by an author whose work I have previously enjoyed – something to entertain.

I regularly seek out literature that challenges convention but not while on holiday.

Quick questions:

Toni Morrison or Philip Roth? Haven’t read anything by either.

Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick? Haven’t read anything by either.

King Lear or The Tempest? Lear. I haven’t seem The Tempest played and don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare.

Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin? Didn’t enjoy Kerouac and haven’t read anything by Baldwin.

Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson? Woolf. Only know Dickinson from quotes – which should actually have encouraged me to read some of her work.

Hamilton or West Side Story? Are these based on books? I’ve no desire to see either played.

Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? I’ve only read the first Game of Thrones book, which I enjoyed. I read everything I could get my hands on by Tolkien as a teenager but haven’t picked him up since. I seem to remember the plot of Lord of the Rings included numerous journeys – all that effort to get to the gates of Mordor the first time and then they decide to go elsewhere! I enjoyed both screen adaptations.

Gabriel García Márquez or Angela Carter? Haven’t read anything by either.

Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Haven’t read any Christie. Adored Conan Doyle.

Beyoncé or Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan, despite his terrible singing, although I still don’t understand why he was awarded the Nobel.

Ten Random Book Blogger Dilemmas

A ramble through the crowded mind of a book blogger…

1. Book post arrives

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Hark! Is that the thud of a parcel landing on my doormat? Rushes excitedly to door and spots book shaped padded envelope. Does joyful dance. Rips open parcel in eager anticipation.

Looks at shiny new book. Strokes cover of shiny new book. Feels ecstatic about receiving this beautiful creation. Publishers love me. Can’t wait to read.

Realisation that am going to have to wait. Have publication dates approaching for many books on my TBR mountain. Have had some of those must read books on my TBR mountain for months.

Rearranges TBR mountain. Adds new book. Wonders how many books can read this week. Cancels all social plans.

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2. No book post arrives

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Hears postman at door. No satisfying thud on doormat. Stares diconsolately at non book post. Feels dark, empty sadness.

Publishers hate me. My reviews are no good.

Distracts self by browsing twitter. Wonders why have not been sent book everyone I follow is tweeting about receiving.

Brief moment of relief that my TBR mountain has not grown. Determines to read faster. Reminds self of every positive comment ever received about reviews.

Wonders if publisher would send book if asked. Stalks publicist on twitter.

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3. Publishes new book review

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Wonders if review does book justice. Agonises over star rating on popular sites. Wonders if review explains star rating. Hates star rating system.

Worries about tagging author in tweet. Wonders if author will read review and consider point of book missed.

Why has author not retweeted review? Author hates review.

Author tweets thanks for review. Joy! Realises author says same lovely thing to every reviewer.

Why has publisher not retweeted my link? Publisher hates review. Wonders if publisher will ever send books again.

So many people have retweeted my link! Feels love for the book blogging community. Feels guilt for not personally thanking everyone. Wonders if will ever be retweeted again.

Rereads review. Spots error / clunky phrase / repeated words. Wonders why considers self writer.

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4. Reads review of  book by other blogger

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Did we read the same book? Wishes I had thought of that turn of phrase. Spots publisher retweeting and quoting review. Worries my reviews are no good.

Reminds self of every positive comment ever received about reviews. Retweets other blogger’s review.

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5. Asked to take part in blog tour

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Requests guest post. Asked for ideas for guest post. Active and imaginative mind goes entirely blank.

Submits idea for guest post. Worries that author will hate idea. Worries that readers will not see funny / perceptive / thought-provoking side of author because of dull idea.

Reads other guest posts on blog tour. Why did I not think of that idea?

Wonders if publisher will ever send books again.

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6. Visits bookshop

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Shiny new books! Selects a dozen must reads. Reminds self of size of TBR mountain. Reminds self that haven’t read last dozen books bought. Puts all books back. Feels sad.

Selects just one book to buy and feels virtuous. Adds book to TBR mountain, non priority pile. Wonders if life will be long enough to find time to read new book.

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7. Friend asks for book recommendation

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Momentarily speechless with excitement. Provides list of awesome, must read books that would last slow reading friend a decade.

Remembers to ask what sort of books previously enjoyed. Offers smaller selection.

Feels guilty for not including amazing book from indie press / lesser known author / publisher who sends me all the best books.

Wonders why friend not telling me how much they enjoyed books recommended. Discovers they have not yet got around to buying them all. Tries to understand.

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8. Choosing a birthday present for a friend

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Has excuse to buy books! Spends hours checking back on every book read in past year. Selects a dozen that friend will absolutely adore.

Checks bank balance. Removes most of the books. Feels sad.

Spends next year wondering why friend is not raving about awesome books received. Remembers not everyone wants to talk books at every opportunity.

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9. Asked to produce Christmas gift list

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Sits down with favourite pen and notebook bought at great expense from lovely bookshop. Writes down titles of all books not received in book post. Adds all books recommended by friends. Adds book leant to former friend and never returned.

Ignores pointed comments from nearest and dearest on already tottering TBR mountain. Ignores request for non book related items.

Tries to be stoical about books not received.

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10. Runs out of bookshelf space

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Decides to cull books. Looks at titles where multiple copies owned. Recognises importance of keeping both ARCs and final copies. Admires paperback edition containing quote from my review.

Gives away books didn’t enjoy or am never likely to read again.

Thinks of books given away and regrets loss.

Comforts self by buying more books. Feels happy with no furniture in house other than bed, bookshelves, and chair in which to read.

Random musings: Burqas and bikinis

The idea of wearing a burqa holds certain attractions. Until I am able to purchase an invisibility cloak it offers the chance to hide away from the judgemental eyes of other people. What I don’t like about this garment is the repression that it represents. It is worn because men say that it is required, because a woman’s body tempts a man to sin simply by being on display. It absolves these men of their most basic responsibility: self control.

Those who try to claim that a girl in a skimpy outfit is asking for sex are speaking the same language as those who insist on women covering themselves from head to toe in a black or blue tent. I don’t buy this argument. Any individual should be able to display themselves as they wish without fear of attack, physical or verbal. An attack is always the fault of the attacker, never the victim.

I like to read diversely. Fiction is such a fabulous way to learn about different ways of thinking. I do not tend to seek out books featuring sexually diverse characters or those with varied skin colours because I already see these people as just like me. Skin tone is of as little significance as the colour of clothes. I eat meat but have friends who are vegetarian, am heterosexual but have friends who are gay or bi. Personal preferences are not my concern, unless there is an element of coercion. I do not wish anyone to tell me how to live my life.

What I do like to read about is characters whose day to day lives are coloured by expectations that are foreign to me, whose actions are ruled by cultural differences, acceptance of which I find hard to comprehend.

I will actively seek out a book that will enable me to better understand the issues faced by a child raised in a traditional Pakistani family, or who is expected to adhere to rules laid down by a religious organisation to which their family has always subscribed. Whilst I may wonder at the way these people think, I can learn more about why traditions have developed and see benefits beside the many flaws. I can broaden my understanding and challenge my thinking; see oppressors as people who, perhaps, have never known that it can be beneficial to act in another way. I may not agree with their choices, but I can gain a better understanding of why they behave as they do.

I find it much harder to empathise with those who have been raised with the ability and freedom to decide for themselves, yet who consider it vital that they always present an outward appearance that is acceptable to those around, such as women whose main aim in life seems to be to achieve a bikini body, big hair and smooth skin.

I tend to avoid books where the heroine must be beautiful and has her life enhanced by a handsome hero who will take care of her every need. Why does she have to be beautiful to find love? Why can she not look after herself? I am not against relationships, I have after all been married for more than twenty years and value my husband’s place in my life highly. He is not, however, responsible for my happiness, that is down to me and me alone.

I support the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I recognise that there are too many people who think it is fine to have only pale skinned, heteronormative, cisgendered, able bodied protagonists. In young people’s literature especially, a more realistic physical, sexual and cultural mix matters. All children should be able to see themselves as the hero in at least some of the books that they read.

Still though, I am uncomfortable reading books that contain characters who match a huge section of the society in which I live, those who feel it is desirable to look like Ken or Barbie. I do not understand why so many fear wrinkles and grey hair, why they feel unable to don a bikini because of the very natural shape of their stomach following childbirth or because their legs are dimpled by their love of cake. I find it sad that some men are now swallowing the marketing hype and feel a need to build muscle or moisturise skin. I cannot comprehend this way of thinking.

My hankering after invisibility indicates that I am not immune to other’s judgements. I may struggle to understand why so many think so much about outward appearance, but I am affected by the knowledge that how I look generates negative comment. My antipathy and therefore avoidance of books where the young and beautiful win some mythical happy ever after may well be feeding my prejudices. If I am to gain empathy and understanding then I need to step beyond my view that these books are damaging because they sell an impossible to achieve lie, and try to better understand why they are so popular.

I decided to review a book titled ‘Diary of a Diva‘ because I expected it to be an amusing if superficial account of life from the point of view of a beautiful, media type person who moved in the sorts of circles that are anathema to me. Having read it I suspect that I wished to pat my prejudices on the head and feel quietly superior. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I feel ashamed.

I judged this book by its cover, the author by her looks and career, something that I call others out on doing all the time. This searingly honest account was as much of an eye opener as any of my chosen, foreign based reads. I had wrapped up ‘media type people’ as a vain, homogeneous mass to look down upon. It would seem that I still have a long way to go in dealing with my negative responses towards those who think differently to me. The protagonist of this non fiction book had many admirable qualities to which I should aspire.

I will wear neither burqa nor bikini because that is my choice. I will however continue to try to read more widely. The author of ‘Diary of a Diva’ was able to see and acknowledge her flaws which she then worked to improve. In reading her book I have uncovered a fair few of my own. I will try to do better.

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