Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

so you've been publicly shamed

I discovered Jon Ronson earlier this year thanks to his very compassionate TED Talk “When online shaming goes too far“. I agreed with his ideas however unpopular they are in the modern world, where we’re okay with shaming people for a thing they’ve done or allegedly done wrong and then join the crowd in destroying their lives. Do you really think that shaming people online is harmless or perhaps that some people “deserve it”? Then read on…

In “You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” Ronson explores some of the most famous cases of shaming: the tweet of Justine Sacco, Jonah Lehrer’s books that included fabrications, Max Mosley’s sex party with allegedly Nazi uniforms and many others you have certainly heard about. The structure of the book is a bit chaotic so I’ll try to discuss briefly its most important points:

Is It Even True?

The first problem with shaming and particularly with online shaming that Ronson points out is that often what people are getting bent out of shape about is often just an interpretation. In a way the source of the outrage becomes irrelevant very quickly. People join in madness in the blink of an eye and no one tries to discover the real story. Those who disagree with the shaming crowd keep quiet, scared to be shamed as well.

Even If It Is True, Do They Deserve It? 

The first scenario when what you’ve said has been misinterpreted or presented in a bad light is even more tragic. However, even if the shamed person has done something wrong the question remains whether they deserve to get the treatment they get and have their lives ruined. We all make mistakes and some mistakes should be punished but is an eternal punishment not a bit too harsh?
People online say the worst stuff about those who are being shamed. Particularly women are often threatened and sent death and rape wishes. Both men and women are being called names. Sure, it’s not okay to do what they did but two wrongs don’t make it right.
Very often as a result of the outrage they end up losing their jobs whether the allegations are true or not because people don’t want to be associated with them.
When the madness subsides and someone else becomes the new victim of the crowd, the lives of people who have been shamed do not get back to normality. The magic of Google makes it possible for people to find your dirty little secret very quickly and no one wants to hire you for a very long time. Can you imagine dating after such an experience? You’re even in trouble if you just share the name with the person who’s been shamed.

Other Considerations

Ronson discusses many other things in the book that I won’t go into details of but that make it even more worth reading:

  • new laws in Europe making it possible for people to “whitelist” their names
  • the very pricey specialist who may help you “whitelist” your name
  • the history of shaming
  • other ways of modern shaming
  • Twitter bots used to create fake Twitter accounts
  • the best way to handle shaming if it happens to you

#zlotybaby’s Insight

The book is well written, if somewhat chaotic and it’s a very quick read. It’ll likely leave you a bit shaken, though. If you’ve ever participated in shaming you may start feeling very very bad about it now that you know what kind of consequences it has on a person. After all, whatever they’ve done, they’re still human. We LOVE being righteous and if someone is wrong it gives us a great opportunity to do so. However, isn’t shaming others a lame way to feel better about ourselves? Besides, who hasn’t said something stupid in their lives or something that could be misinterpreted?
I guess my main conclusion after reading this book is that we should try to be compassionate and not assume the worst of others. We should also remember that our actions matter and that with a mindless reshare can contribute to someone’s pain.

For those who think that we should pay forever for even the smallest mistakes, I’m leaving some food for thought with this video about a man, who actually used to do bad things but turned his life around. Watch the TED talk by Christian Picciolini here.

Have you ever participated in online shaming? Have you ever been shamed? Do you think that people deserve forgiveness or should they pay forever for their mistakes? I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

 

 

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Book Review : The Unexpected Joy of Being Single By Catherine Gray

book

As you all know by now, #englishrosiee recently took a much-needed sabbatical from the world of online dating.  As I found myself contemplating my Tinder hiatus, I stumbled across this book titled The Unexpected Joy of Being Single by Catherine Gray. To be completely honest, as much as I hated/hate the rigmarole of the dating game, I did find myself scoffing at this ludicrously titled book.  Although my initial thoughts were that this would be some silly Feminazi justification for spinsterhood, I knew better than to judge a book by its cover (quite literally) and seeing as the author is a Sunday Time’s Bestseller, I figured she probably had something worthwhile to say and there probably was no more appropriate time to read such a book than during a self-imposed period of singledom.

So, the book is part auto-biography, part self-help but with lots of factual insights into the realities of modern dating and being single. It starts by putting things into perspective – apparently more than half of Brits aged 25-44 are single. and increasing numbers of people are putting off marriage and babies till later in life (if they choose to pursue that at all). It’s reassuring to know, especially when you consider the stigma attached to being single. I mean, it’s normal for everyone and their dog to offer you dating advice and tell you not to fret because Prince Charming will fall from the sky when you least expect it. Ugh, not so long ago a Sri Lankan waitress in a Thai Restaurant offered to set me up with some dude from India (who can speak English – how lucky am I!!) because according to her my life would be OVER if I wasn’t married and knocked up by the age of 35. Sigh. Exactly.

I think there are probably single women in their 30s that will be able to resonate with the content. At first I literally felt the book was written for me and sent a friend a picture of one of the chapters titled something along the lines of A 33 Year Old Spinster (yup, there are days when I think that is me!).  The basic gist of the story is how the author goes from being a love addict (having desperate need to always be in a relationship for validation) to confidently embracing her single status.

The book also explore how, thanks to popular culture, we’ve been led to believe that single life is inferior to the traditional package of marriage, kids and happily ever after. It is also touches on some interesting economic perspectives as why people (may) feel more motivated into pursuing a relationship rather than remaining happily single. For example, single life tends to be more expensive. In many western metropolises, it is difficult for single people to get onto the property ladder. Its also more expensive to travel solo versus splitting the costs with a man-friend. But as she points out there are always ways around these thing.

In essence, the message behind the book is well intentioned and gives you a lot to think about. It is also reassuring to realise that you aren’t alone as 30-something singleton, and there is really nothing wrong with you (you really aren’t single because you are morbidly obese, ugly and dumb). However, I think it is mainly written from the perspective of a well educated, white, middle class woman in her mid/late 30s living in an affluent western city. In other cultures, it would be more difficult to have this ‘I am a strong liberated woman’ attitude when you factor in cultural, religious and various family pressures.  I think we are lucky in that while they can get irritating, most of the comments we get from family and friends are somewhat LOL-worthy and easy enough to fob off but I think in other societies the pressure would be more real.

So while I do agree with what Catherine Gray says about having to be a sorted single person before you can expect to be a functional part of a happy relationship and how people should try to date in moderation rather than out of desperation. There is a lot I don’t agree with. Of course its nice to believe that there are other forms of love – from your family, friends, dogs and various other sentient beings. But lets be real none of these compare to romantic love. Yeah, yeah I know what you are thinking. We live in an age where you can easily pay for sexy time if you have the cash money, hit up Anne Summers or use your trusty hand if you really are broke. But you already know my thoughts on the whole WISO way of thinking. Even beyond those basic animal instincts though, there are other elements of romantic relations that can’t be replicated elsewhere. So while periods of singledom are well and good, I don’t think this should ever be a permanent state of affairs.

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve probably had both my happiest times and most heartbreaking times thanks to relationships. Having a fulfilling single life can certainly save you the emotional rollercoaster that comes from engaging in human relations. But to me its, just that a happy medium, a safe haven essentially. And I think we should always strive for more. So yup, the #tinderhiatus was a good thing on many levels and as much as being back in the game will get infuriating, I’ll keep tindering along while still finding time to all the other stuff that life requires till Prince Charming makes an appearance.

Rinsers. Give me your thoughts on single life. Is it something that should be embraced and seriously considered as an alternative to the happily ever after BS fed to us by the media? Do you think people these days are legitimately single out of choice, or because basically they are unwanted, fussy or lazy? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

 

 

Book Review : Everything I Know About Love By Dolly Alderton

Everythhing-I-Know-About-Love-By-Dolly-Alderton

Having recently reactivated my online dating profiles I made a rather scathing comment after being reminded of the limited type of men available to me in the Mother City. I’m afraid the comment is too un-PC, even for this blog (it involved some reference to Brit TV channel) so I’ll leave that to your imagination (and I’ll give you #zlotybaby’s famous 2 rand if you guess right). The friend I was bitching to LOL’d and commented that it was quite refreshing to see how my taste in men/romantic perspectives had changed so dramatically in the space of two years which subsequently made me think of a book I’d read earlier this year.

Following the abrupt end of a lovely winter fling just prior to Valentine’s Day (I have the BEST luck!) I picked up a copy of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton. It’s just the type of book you need if you’ve just been ceremoniously dumped, done something idiotic or simply don’t feel like you are where you should be in life or are feeling a bit sorry for yourself.  The book is an autobiographical account of how the author’s perspective on love changes as she grows up. I would also go as far as to say it is one of the best (non-intentional) self-help books I’ve ever read!

Basically it takes the reader from those embarrassing school girl crushes that we supposedly have in our teens (I was still acting like a teenager in my 20s – late bloomer and all!), through the madness of student life where you basically fall onto faces that you only have vague recollections of when your friends debrief you on the previous nights events (yep, we’ve all been there!), to your early 20s when you start to feel like you might be finding a purpose in life and getting things on the right track till BOOM the universe bitch slaps you with some god-awful life experiences!

It’s definitely a nice piece of chick-lit which will really have you LOL’ing. It’s an easy read but not in the usual trashy sense. In many ways, this book contains the sort of things many girls would have wished they’d known as a teen. I don’t know about y’all but I often find myself wanting to punch those older, influential people around me in the face for not telling certain things when I was growing up. To give you the most basic of examples, when I was a chubby (bordering on obese) kid growing up, I always thought I’d never get lucky because guys were only into those blond chicks with super model-esque figures. Not true. As I’ve grown up I’ve had first hand experience of how it really is a case of different strokes for different folks with ex-boyfriends feeding me doughnuts telling me they’d dump my skinny ass if I ever start looking like those yoga-bunny types I’ve always aspired to be (see kids, chubby-chasers are real!). Anyway, I’m sure you’ll also find lots of useful bits of information, you may know now but wish you’d known when you were younger!

It’s not all about romantic love, as the title may trick you into believing. It is also about the general ups and downs we experience growing up – partying hard, getting drunk, navigating the job market, learning to stand on your own two feet (and getting knocked down in the process), and having  a few good friends who are there by your side through it all. It’s basically a more real, less glamorous, more British account of Sex and the City. And I’ll pretty much say the same thing about it as said about the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel…it’s funny, but it’s super funny if you are a Brit. I mean there are some references that you’ll pretty much only get if you grew up in Blighty!

So, all in all, it’s just a really lovely, generally hilarious (but sad in some parts) book about getting older and muddling through life. And I think the best thing about the book is that if your feeling like a bit of a dumb-ass whether it’s a case of falling in ‘love’ too quickly or falling down drunk and making a fool of yourself, it’ll make you realise you are not alone in your stupidity. All the idiotic things you’ve done have likely been done before, and as much of a numpty as you might feel about it now, you’ll likely come out the other side just fine. So if you or one of mates needs a bit of a boost or a little reassurance, Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, is sure to provide just that. Go read!

 

 

 

Book Review: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

mating in captivityEsther Perel is a renowned psychotherapist who has been working with couples like forever. One of her main interests are long-term relationships and more specifically domestic sexuality and infidelity. She’s also fluent in 9 languages and in general a very impressive smart thinker. During one of my book shopping splurges I bought a copy of her book “Mating in Captivity” and here’s what I think about it.

“Mating in Captivity” is an interesting read. Theoretical parts of the book are supported with Perel’s clients cases. It’s quite a comprehensive book in some aspects. I did feel, however, like it was written a bit too much on the basis of Perel’s work experience and thoughts and there was too little focus on other books/research on the topic.
The author makes some very important points. She underlines how a good couple is a union of independent beings and how dependence and lack of separation is a desire killer. This is counter-intuitive given our social and cultural programming (just think about the Jerry Maguire everyone’s favorite line to his love interest “You complete me.”). I also liked how she pointed out the importance of society in formation of our expectations and views regarding sexuality and domesticity. As a representative of any Western society, you can relate to most of what she’s talking about. Still, some of her points are very American culture oriented and fall flat with a non-American reader.
The society has a big impact on us but Perel couldn’t be a respectable psychotherapist without mentioning a thing or two about the impact of childhood and our relationship with parents on our sexuality. Last but not least, she discusses the complex reasons why children can be such sex life killers and no, just being tired isn’t anywhere close to the full explanation.

The book provides food for thought and reads well. I do have certain doubts about its use for a troubled couple, though. Let’s say someone, for instance, thinks that spending 100% of your time apart from work with your partner is the blueprint for happiness but after years of doing so is struggling with resentment and a non-existent sex life. I really doubt that pointing out that this isn’t the way to go, even if supported with an appropriate case study will encourage this person to change. In a way, as good as this book is, it does feel a little bit like preaching to the choir. Perhaps the genre of the book is a bit unclear? It has some traits of a self-help book as well as some of a more general “how human works” vibe. Anyway, thanks, Madame Perel for making me feel justified in my judgment of other couples 😉

 

Review : The Break by Marian Keyes

 

breakThere are times when your mind is filled with traumatic life issues and you need to find a trashy novel that doesn’t require too much mental capacity (maybe just a Matric certificate though!) to escape your reality and make you feel better about your sad little existence. This was one of those times.

The Break is the tale of Amy, a 40-something PR executive whose husband Hugh has decided to take ‘a break’ from their marriage (hence the title). Hugh emphasises that they are not breaking up and this is just a break. The parameters are set for a defined – he is taking 6 months to travel around South East Asia and after this time he’ll return a fixed man so they can pick up where they left off (oh, and he’ll possibly sleep with other women if he gets the chance). There is no room for negotiation. He is leaving – bags packed, tickets booked and those all-important announcements made of social media. Poor Amy doesn’t have much choice in the matter.  Although the feminazi types may demand she stand up for herself and refuse to let him dictate the rules, the truth is they are old(er), have 3 kids and financial assets together so throwing your toys out of the cot isn’t much of an option.

As much as she left with no other option but to accept the situation. There is a silver lining (kind of).  She is also free to do what she pleases during the 6 month break. Although to be fair it really isn’t a level playing field as he swans off to sow his wild oats in Thailand she has to schedule sexy time around balancing a job, her old parents and her three daughters. On top of that, the story reminds us as much as we may call for a break in a relationship it’s something that’s easier said than done especially in the age of social media where your life is no longer just your own but a form of entertainment for everyone around.

Ultimately, behind all the funny bits, the story supports the idea that in reality relationships don’t always conform to a given model. There is a lot of pressure for people of all ages to keep up appearances for the sake of those around them whether that means kids, parents, friends or just general society. But sometimes as unconventional as things are you have to just go with it and let life take it’s natural course. People are sure to judge you no matter what you do but the truth is as much as people may think they know your life as it is portrayed on social media nobody really sees what goes on behind closed doors. The elements that could be described as possibly the more mundane parts of a relationship – the friendship, understandings, familiarity, day to day division of labour and the in-jokes.

So, if your looking for an easy read and a little bit of reassurance that not everything has to fit into those parameters that society wants human relationships to conform to then this  is just what. It’s not highly intellectual reading but a pretty good reality check with some great LOL moments thrown in.

Rinsers, Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? Are you someone who’ll try different things in order to make a relationship work? Or do you think there is a set formula for relationship success? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

Why_Buddhism_Is_TrueYou may think that this book doesn’t belong here. After all our blog is about dating and relationships. However, I would argue that how we approach life in general and how much we act on autopilot of our programming has a lot to do in how we choose our partners and behave in relationships. A book about a tool that helps us to think before we do, is a tool that has its place on this blog.

Robert Wright’s book “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment” is a much more down to earth book than the title suggests. Wright is also a very reasonable guy himself and has an amazingly dry sense of humor. He describes the perks of meditation from his point of view, which is that of an evolutionary psychologist. In his book he compares the ancient knowledge with what we know from science. As we are animals (just deal with it), we are ruled by natural selection. This means that most of the things we do have to do with how we’re programmed to perform. Natural selection’s goal is to make us reproduce, this is not a human goal most of the time (even if someone wants kids they don’t want to have kids all the time either). I touched upon this topic in my posts about pragmatism in love and rethinking romanticism, where I explained that butterflies don’t seem to be much more than our body yet again tricking us into reproduction. For the same reasons we are programmed to choose our kin above strangers, to label people and put them into us vs them categories and even to gossip. All these mechanisms were valid tools of survival in the hunter-gatherer society but they don’t serve us in the modern world. Meditation is a tool to undo some of such useless programming. I will not get into any more detail because a) Wright has already written a book about it and b) in his book he actually does a great job at explaining things.

Someone could say that the book isn’t a good manual for meditation but the fact is no manual is really needed. Maybe like me you’ve spent a lot of money on meditation courses, guided meditation CDs and other devices. They may help you but the truth is they usually just make you procrastinate. The simplest guide to meditation is: sit down, close your eyes, focus on your breath, when your thoughts appear don’t follow them but keep focusing on your breath, repeat it for at least 20 minutes every day. Ta-dam! Here, I saved you some money. The book serves a different purpose, however, and this is to help to popularize meditation as it is a very helpful device in living better and just becoming a nicer human being. Of course, there are a lot of misconceptions about meditation. People are scared that it will change them, deprive them of feelings and other things. Wright answers to all of these concerns in a knowledgeable manner of someone who not only studied the subject theoretically but is also a regular, yet not heavy, meditator.

I recommend this book to anyone, really. As meditation is challenging in the beginning and often counter-intuitive as it’s not a part of the Western cultural heritage, it’s good to read a book that explains in a (not overly) scientific manner the benefits of meditation. I can only tell you that it’s really worth it. I may be still far away from being the person I’d like to be but both myself and my relationships have significantly benefited from my meditation practice.

 

The Art of Happiness by The Dalai Lama

The_Art_of_HappinessThe Dalai Lama and his teachings may be far away from what you’d consider typical life and self-help advice in general but “The Art of Happiness” has been co-written with a psychiatrist Howard Cutler to suit the Western audience better. It may not be the most engaging read ever but it has a number of good tips on how to live well.

The Dalai Lama’s book will tell you one of the most important truths that so many people want to escape and/or ignore: life is suffering. It’s not suffering all the time but you must accept that suffer you will, seems to be a Master Yoda reading of the book. People can entirely escape suffering only by enlightenment, which comes from years and years of earthly pleasure deprivation and meditation. The Dalai Lama isn’t there yet so let’s agree that it may not be the way to go for all of us, regular mortals. However, with meditation and acceptance of feelings that comes with it, we can all learn to live more in the present moment and less in our heads. Meditation practice doesn’t make the pain of every day existence disappear but it helps us alleviate it. There’s plenty of modern research showing benefits of meditation. I’m a regular meditator myself and I can tell you that it has done wonders to my anxiety, stress levels and much more.

Apart from the meditation practice, the Dalai Lama encourages us to seek happiness and not pleasure in life. What we need is contentment and serenity, while pleasure brings us only short-term highs and lows. Happiness, on the other hand, is long-term. Think about the difference in this way: this slab of chocolate may make you feel better when you’re eating it and when the sugar rush hits you but soon you’ll feel low because of eating it. It’s an indulgence, it’s not particularly healthy and it doesn’t give you much nutrition. Eating healthy is, of course, better for your long-term well-being. We make similar choices between pleasure and happiness all the time in life. Do I want to have a one night stand? Do I want to get completely wasted? Impulsive choices may serve us as temporarily pain killers and distractions but pursuing them actually makes us less not more happy long-term. You want to be happy? Then choose happiness above pleasure in life as often as you can. And yeah, no one said it’ll be easy.

The love and dating advice from the Dalai Lama also goes with the pleasure vs happiness principle. If you get hooked on the drama in the relationship or just the sex, it’s not a good relationship. You should look for wholesome relationships that give you stability and at the same time you shouldn’t depend on your partner entirely. You may wonder what someone who has never had sex or a partner may know about these things but if you think about it, these are the same rules he preaches otherwise. Besides, you would agree his tips are apt, even if they completely dismiss how difficult it may be to find the wholesome relationship, right?

The Dalai Lama teaches us also how to connect to human beings in general. I think a lot of us may feel disconnected and somewhat lonely in this world. We look for people who are almost exactly like us and get upset when others don’t meet our expectations. The Dalai Lama has a solution to that! Instead of getting hanged up on the differences between you and other people, like for instance that you’re Team God and someone isn’t or the other way round, you can try to relate to them on a basic, interconnecting level. We’re all humans, we all want to avoid suffering and find happiness. By applying such thinking it’s easier to grow compassion and empathy towards others and therefore feel more connected.

The Dalai Lama discusses some meditations techniques and some Buddhist teachings in the book but doesn’t go into too much detail. Where his advice may seem unclear, Cutler uses Western examples to make it more understandable for a typical reader. All in all, it’s a good but somewhat unsubstantial read. It will make you maybe ponder on some issues and introduce some better life habits but I think “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” is doing a better job at selling unpopular yet crucial views to the modern audience. The Dalai Lama’s book will probably only be picked up by those who’ve been doing some soul searching for a while and to those people it’ll look very superficial and basic.

Are you actively searching for happiness, Dear Rinser? Any meditators hear? How do you try yourself to lead a happy life?

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

the_subtle_art_of_not_giving_a_fuckI occasionally read Mark Manson’s blog. He’s a rather smart guy with good, counter-intuitive and certainly not mainstream advice about how to live. Among others, he preaches certain pragmatism in dating which of course makes me his fan. This is why when I saw his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” in a bookstore, I decided to give it a go.

Just like Buddha and other Buddhist folk, Mark tells us that suffering is a natural part of life. The problem with the modern society is that it doesn’t want to accept it as a fact. We try to find various ways of relieving the pain of life or entirely get rid of it, which just doesn’t make sense. The mainstream media promotes a happy clappy reality, which just isn’t, well, realistic. We’ll all suffer in this or other way and we should embrace it, says Manson. In his mind it means choosing the things we give a f*ck about. You know how people get bent out of shape every time something doesn’t go exactly like they expected it to? This is giving a f*ck about something they shouldn’t. Some things are beyond our control and there’s no point in excessive anger. There are other things, however, which are important and which are worth fighting for. In other words, we will suffer but we can choose what’s worth suffering for.

Of course, Mark tells the reader much more in his book and explains his ideas in more detail but the above summary should give you an idea about the tone. I like Manson’s no bullshit approach to life. Oh, boo hoo, it’s difficult to have the courage to change your job? Well, life is difficult. Is it important enough for you to try? Manson also analyses why humans act against their best interest and uses good examples to explain why things are the way we are. The book is a good read and certainly an eye opener particularly for those people who never encountered Buddhist teachings. However, it’s not free of flaws.

First of all, Mark gives you nothing in return for changing your life views. He pours a bucket of cold water on your head and then he leaves you out there, in the cold in, with no clothes on. Buddhism after doing the same gives you meditation as a way to improve your life. Therapy gives you tools to deal with new information such as practical exercises aimed at changing your habits. Hell, even other self-help books give you practical advice on what to do. Manson doesn’t and he claims he doesn’t have to, which is surprising for someone who claims to well know the human nature. Another weakness of the book is that even I, as an irregular reader of his blog, have recognized big chunks of the text as being copy pasted from his online work. This isn’t cool particularly for his faithful readers. There are different ways to say the same things and this device is just lazy. Last but not least, he digresses quite a bit and the book could have been structured in a better way.

Having said that, I still think that Manson is brilliant. He’s the only widely read person I know, who stands up to the harmful beliefs that the main culture is ingraining in us. He’s a free thinker and I have a lot of respect for him. I recommend this book to everyone, particularly to those who are comfortable with their illusions about how life should be nice and fluffy.

Do you read Manson’s blog, Dear Reader? What blog do you read (apart from this one, of course)? Can you recommend any books that opened your eyes? I’m looking forward to reading your comments.

Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The_vegetarian_-_han_kangPerhaps the literary awards are political and biased but I’m a bit of a sucker and I always try to read the books and authors awarded with a Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize or anything else which has the name Prize in it, even if it’s awarded by the Kansas Board of Paper Manufacturers. This is how I ended up reading “The Vegetarian”, the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

The book is divided in three parts which focus on different characters. The first one tells a story of the main trouble maker and the plot catalyst, Yeong-hye. She is a Korean stay-at-home wife, who one day decides to become a vegetarian due to disturbing dreams. The otherwise obedient wife and daughter is extremely stubborn in her new eating regime. Her surrounding will not accept her trying to redefine herself and find her true self (whatever it may turn out to be)…

The Han Kang’s novel is a great read. The author has created a compelling cross-genre narrative with elements of Grimms’ fairy tales, a dark poem and a manifesto of non-compliance. Yeong-hye, just like Bartleby from Melville’s short story, would prefer not do some things. What starts with a refusal to eat meat expands to other areas of her life. Is her stubbornness a sign of her finding a voice of her own or pure madness? And if it’s the latter does an individual have the right to explore it? Who is to decide what’s normal and what isn’t? And aren’t we all crazy by leading the lives we don’t really want, according to rules which aren’t our own? You may find answers to these questions in the novel…or not. It all depends on how you’re going to interpret it. If you’re keen on exploring such ambiguities I’d also recommend an excellent novella by Henry James “The Turn of the Screw”.

“The Vegetarian” will certainly make you think and this is what, in my opinion, literature should do. It also gives you a glimpse into a Korean society which is presented in the novel as highly patriarchal. This is why the novel isn’t just a story of non-conformism but has a clearly feminist flavor to it. If you’re wondering where’s the difference coming from I’ll reply with a quote from “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamands Ngozi Adichie: “Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.” This novel isn’t just about the right of an individual to decide about himself or herself. If the protagonist was a man, his “eccentricity” would have probably been accepted and maybe only gossiped about behind his back. A disobedient woman, however, has to be put in her place.

If you end up reading the novel and thinking it’s…ummm… different just bear in mind that the Korean compatriots of the author also thought that it was weird. It takes some getting used to but the read is really worth it. It’s a literary feast and food for thought at the same time. “The Vegetarian” is a short read but it doesn’t mean it’s light. I will certainly read more by the author in Deborah Smith’s translation (the female translator has received the Man Booker International prize jointly with the author, in recognition of her efforts to preserve the original qualities of the novel).

Have you read the book, Dear Rinser? If yes, what did you think about it? Any favorite stories of non-compliance or more specifically female non-compliance, you’re willing to share?

 

 

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

sweet toothI’m a huge Ian McEwan fan. Finishing this book means that I’ve read all his novels (and collections of short stories and plays and books for children and no, my name isn’t Misery). As you would assume, my expectations were high. Has the novel managed to meet them? Read the review to find out!

Serena Frome is into literature but she’s also good at maths. Pushed to study the latter by her mother, she graduates from Cambridge with no clue about what to do with her life. Fortunately, this beautiful girl meets a gentleman who moulds her into a perfect secret service candidate. Will Serena conquer the sexist world of spies and successfully infiltrate the literary world or will she fail miserably?

To encounter a female character who’s a spy in literature is exciting for most women. There aren’t many of them and if they exist, you mostly find them in children’s or teen fiction. Certainly not on the pages of books by serious writers like Ian McEwan. However, the author seems to have a liking for female protagonists. “Atonement”, “On Chesil Beach” or his second to last book, “The Children Act” are good examples of this tendency. I usually can relate to his characters but I did struggle with Serena. She reminds me of a child lost in the mist. Her actions are not well thought through, she falls for one wrong man after another as a twisted version of your typical femme fatale. Serena doesn’t seem to take fate into her own hands and things just happen to her. Perhaps that’s the reason why the novel ends where it ends…

“Sweet Tooth” does fail as a love story, mostly because Serena is more of a plastic doll than an actual character. The novel also fails as a spy novel. There were moments when I couldn’t stop myself from reading further but most of the time I was forcing myself not to skip parts of it. I’m not really interested in reading lengthy descriptions of secret service procedures and neither are other people who choose to read spy novels. A typical reader of this genre is looking for swift action, even if unrealistic. Ideally, it should be so fast, the reader doesn’t have time to stop and question what’s been happening. McEwan gives us instead a kind of lengthy semi-philosophical divagation on the topic of secret service. Can and should the government control artists? Well, no, hello, communism? I don’t need a whole novel to get that it’s morally questionable.

Do the ideas in the book have any merit? From my selfish point of view, yes. I was quite interested in McEwan descriptions of non-existent writings of his fictional character that are sometimes uncannily similar to his actual work. There’s also the beautiful manner in which McEwan puts sentences together. In other words, the plot isn’t captivating but his style as always is. Does it mean I’d recommend this book to anyone? I don’t think so. A McEwan fan won’t stop reading his novels because of this below average book. I could, however, see someone starting their adventure with the author with “Sweet Tooth” and getting discouraged from exploring his work any further. This would be such a shame! We all have bad days so someone who’s been writing for the last 50 years has the right to write a bad novel. McEwan virgins should rather have a go at “Atonement”, “Enduring Love” or his short stories.

Have you heard of Ian McEwan, Dear Rinser? Who’s your favorite writer?