Tuesday 31 May 2016

Devouring Books: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran hits so many of my personal hotspots and interests that it's difficult to know where to begin in reviewing it. Do I start with the feminism? Or do I dive into the fact that it's not only a memoir, but also a work of literary criticism, based around autobiography? Or do I recount the ways it reminded me of Persepolis, but also the ways it was even better than Persepolis?

I think, instead, I'll start with Margaret Atwood (bear with me). The cover of my copy has a quotation from Atwood, suggesting that this is a really good book. A general marketing ploy, of course, to get people who read Atwood's work to try a book by an 'ethnic' writer they might not be aware of, and I'm sure it definitely works on that level. However, the more I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, the more I was reminded of The Handmaid's Tale and how you read the latter thinking that women's freedoms could never be removed in such a way, and then read the former and understand that it has already happened, in Iran. I think it's really interesting that we (and by we, I'm really just speaking for myself) think of Iran as being incredibly oppressive and sexist towards its female citizens and that's how it's always been, when in fact this oppression is incredibly new, and in fact Persia, as Iran used to be, was previously one of the most advanced places for women to live in the world.

This kind of history becomes evident in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is memoir about a lot of things- about living through the Iranian revolution, and about living after it, and dealing with what is left behind for women. Nafisi recounts what living in Iran was like before the revolution, of her childhood considering her grandma almost a relic for wearing the veil, up to an Iran where wearing the veil is non-compulsory, and refusal to do so leads to either corporal punishment, and sometimes death. The memoir begins with Nafisi's story of the reading group she set up, having been fired from her university for general disobedience and not being a puppet of a woman, and it is made clear from this group that, although Nafisi can remember a time of freedom for women that is hard to shake, her students can only hear stories of those times, with no sense of what it is actually like to have personal freedoms. I found myself almost wanting to choose which was worse, but eventually decided that there was no point- both scenarios are terrible, and both to me seem unbearable.

Reading Lolita in Tehran would be good and interesting and immensely readable even without the literary criticism it contains, but with the literary criticism it becomes something else entirely. It makes complete sense that Nafisi, who is, after all, a doctor of English, should tell readers about her life through books, because in a certain sense, her life has been books. For this book, what it means is that we get solid literary criticism (from an Iranian, sometimes revolutionary perspective) about the works of Nabokov and Henry James, as well as a look at Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby and the ways in which they're relevant to life- to all lives, really. It's the kind of writing that made me rethink some of the ways I felt about The Great Gatsby, for instance, and made me want to read Invitation to a Beheading so badly that I ordered a fancy copy from Amazon only to find that I already had it on my shelves (the perils of a book hoarder!)

It didn't quite make me want to read James, but that's only to be expected because I have tried and I'm sorry, but I can't.

This book, then, is something of a reader's delight of a memoir, but it's also interesting in a historical sense and if you have any interest in feminism at all. I was gripped by it in a way I am not always gripped by non-fiction (even memoirs) and it made me want, in that dangerous, slippery slope sort of way, want to go back and just do a damn phD already, if only so that I could, maybe one day, write a memoir as good as this, with literary criticism as compelling and relevant to my life as Nafisi manages to make it to hers. If you care about history, if you care about revolution, if you care about feminism, if you care about books, you're probably going to care about Reading Lolita in Tehran quite a lot.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Second-Saturday Sundries: Living Life and Getting Through

Happy second-Saturday, everyone!
Is there anything better than a Bank Holiday? I think probably not, except for, like, actual holidays and days when there is cake. In a practical sense, what this Bank Holiday means is that I can apply for jobs without feeling like I'm losing a day of my liiiiiiife because I have a whole extra day off tomorrow where I can actually do things I want to do! (What I want to do: go to Reading with Frances and eat all the food. It's happening.)

I've probably written too much in general about how much I hate applying for jobs, so I'll avoid that line of thought today and go on a different, but still as sad route. Friday was what would have been my Grandad's 88th birthday, and tomorrow marks one year since he died, and one year of living without any grandparents. It's weird to put it that way, I guess, but when your grandparents have had an important presence in your life for 26 and a little bit years, and then they all go away in 17 months, you have to figure out how to get along without them.

Here's where I'd normally try to share things I'd learnt, or some kind of hopeful message or something, but if there's one thing I don't really know anything about it's being positive about death (also, boys. But that's another issue.) But seriously, it really sucks, and everything hurts, and then everything hurts slightly less, but it continues to suck, and I don't think it'll ever really stop sucking. Death is weirdly life-changing, and in the past year it's been so strange to not see my family every Sunday, and to not be able to go to my Grandparents' house anymore (I don't think I've really accepted that one), and just generally, to have fewer people in my life who are unconditionally there for me and think everything I do is amazing, whether it is or not.

It's just been really hard, is what I'm saying.

And yet. We carry on because there's nothing else we can do, and slowly carve out new things that we do all the time. I do still see family on Sundays but it's just my mum and dad, but that's enough. I don't get to see my grandparents on their birthdays (or, indeed, mine) but they're still always with me, and that's enough. It wasn't fair to lose three of them so close together, but it wouldn't have been any easier if they'd been spread out because I loved them and didn't want to lose them, ever. I don't really know where I'm going with this because I don't have a unifying statement, a grand message of hope, I just have this: I love them, I miss them, I was lucky to have them. Nothing will ever be as it was, but that doesn't mean it can't be just as good, just in a different way. Or at least I hope (ha! Hope) so.

So, Friday. With a touch of providence, I also got my Lucky Dip Club subscription box for the month on Friday, and in it were some seeds. I can't remember ever planting anything before, but I can remember getting my grandad to plant things for me, so it was wonderful to, even in the smallest way, be following in his gardening footsteps and planting my own little seeds, waiting to see what would flower.
I guess I'm waiting to see what else my grandparents have planted in me that's going to flower later. Knowing them, I bet it's going to be just wonderful.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Sunday Sundries: New Things!

Happy Sunday, everyone! Here in merry old England it is warm but kinda cloudy and I am not into that at all, so I'm essentially staying in my room, 'tidying' (blogging) and 'looking for jobs' (reading) because what else are Sundays for? Exactly.

So, I missed last week's Sunday Sundries. MY BAD. It's especially my bad because the most exciting thing (to me) happened and it deserves a moment of pause:
I GOT A KITCHENAID. Look at how beautiful it is, I simply cannot cope. I suspect that normal people probably don't really care that much about Kitchenaids, but I've wanted one for a veeeery long time now, and, as I said to my housemate, it's definitely the best consolation prize for all my grandparents being dead that there ever was. (I don't want that to sound flippant and OBViously nothing makes up for it, but this was a present from my mum out of her inheritance etc etc. And I love it.)

I feel like it might be a better present for everyone who knows me than for me because I am so eager to use it at all times that I keep baking things. I made cupcakes the day after I got it, and then less than a week later (i.e. Wednesday) I made a chocolate loaf cake (so good) and I'm considering making some cookies today, so, yeah. I'm baking the hell out of stuff, does anyone want some baked goods because seriously, I want to make them!

In further excitement, I went to see King Lear and it was actually quite a good production (King Lear is notoriously difficult to perform and stage). Even better, I bought the cheapest ticket because I'm not a millionaire, but I presume they didn't sell enough (poor Shakespeare) so I got upgraded to a way better seat for no money, which totally felt like winning.
Last weekend I went out with work and got preeeeeetty drunk which was great, and Saturday I went to this Harry Potter comedy parody... thing with my sister. It was funny, BUT I felt like the performers found it funnier than I did, and I couldn't help thinking that with all of my Harry Potter experience and experience of being fucking hilarious I could kind of have done a better job? And yet. I still enjoyed myself so I shouldn't really complain.

And now we realise that it's a good job that I didn't Sunday Sundries at you last week, because I don't really have anything to tell about this week, apart from, you know, work and so on. Friday was my dad's birthday so I went to see him and eat food, then slept at my parents' so I could meet my auntie's boyfriend's dog (I have my priorities right) and also to be fed and generally looked after for a day because who doesn't want that?! Nobody, that's who.

Which just about brings us up to now. In book news, I'm really trying to read less books at once which is why I started two new books this week when I was already reading two (*sigh*) but being in the middle of four books is still less than I was in the middle of at the start of May, so... baby steps? In life news, the soundtrack to my entire life for the whole of May so far has been the soundtrack to Hamilton, and OH MY GOD. I feel like a fool for not listening to all of the Americans I know (sorry, guys) in like January about how good it is, but I have now learnt my lesson and it's all I can listen to. If I had a bucket list, basically all that would be on it at the moment is seeing Hamilton (and it better come to London soon, or so help me God...) and ARGH HOW IS IT SO GOOD?!?!?!?!?!

I know. I'm a thousand years behind everything. But at least I know now!

So that is me. What have you been up to, tell me everything.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Devouring Books: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In reviewing The Omnivore's Dilemma, the devouring part of my blog name becomes important in two different ways- not only is this a book about food, and what we devour on a daily basis and how we should instead be devouring, it is also a book I absolutely devoured, being, as it is, both incredibly informative, and also really well written.

I don't really read that much non-fiction, even though I tend to enjoy it when I do, because a lot of the time it is fairly poorly written, so for this to be on a subject I'm really interested in AND eminently readable made it a real treat to read. Pollan is a journalist as well as a human interested in food, which I guess is why he's so good at writing, and The Omnivore's Dilemma goes from something that could have been really dry and dull and not that convincing to a masterpiece of non-fiction that has made me think a lot about the way I eat and the way I would prefer the world to be.

The book is split into three sections, each focusing on a different way of growing (or rearing) food and what it actually looks like. The first section looks at the industrial food chain, and how, in this world, growing crops and raising animals has become something incredibly removed from nature, so that yield rather than quality is the only thing that matters. I was genuinely shocked by the amount of corn that America grows and how much it is subsidised by the government, but also by how many ingredients are made from it and so how many processed foods contain corn. (Side note: I feel like in the UK we don't really use high fructose corn syrup and so it's possible we maybe have less of a corn-based diet. But I'm sure there's not that much of a difference). 

He also makes this incredibly excellent point:
"In the industrial food economy, virtually the only information that travels along the food chain linking producer and consumer is price. Just look at the typical newspaper ad for a supermarket. The sole quality on display here is actually a quantity: tomatoes $0.69 a pound; ground chuck $1.09 a pound; eggs $0.99 a dozen- special this week. Is there any other category of product sold on such a reductive basis?"
I feel like, in general, we think of cheaper products as being of poorer quality, but when it comes to food, the cheaper we can get it, the more of a deal we believe we're getting. It really made me think about the way I buy food, which to be fair is as cheap as possible because I'm really poor, but the same goes for food as goes for anything else- you really do get what you pay for.

The second part of the book focuses on organic food, and if you're reading this book and you try to eat mostly organic and feel pretty good about yourself, then you're not allowed to because organic doesn't really mean what you think it does, it seems. For an animal to be considered organic, for example, it just has to have been fed using organic corn (this even includes cows, who shouldn't really be eating corn anyway), and organic has gone from a grassroots movement to something that's just one remove from industrial farming anyway. The thing is, even though this is a fairly depressing thing to know, Pollan never dwells on the fact that it's kind of terrible, but merely looks at the way it has been before, and tentatively suggests ways in which things could, and maybe should, be different.

The final part of the book is where Pollan gets a bit personal, and where the inevitable question of vegetarianism comes into things. I think there were many points in reading this where I could feel slightly smug that I wasn't a part of the problems described by factory farming of animals, and so Pollan's own consideration of the topic was interesting to read. Essentially, I think he does a better job of justifying his decisions than does Barbara Kingsolver (ugh) and actually it made me think about the reasons I don't eat meat and made me probably admit to myself that if I could get some meat that I had some kind of guarantee had had a pretty nice life, then actually, yeah, I'd probably eat it. So actually that was an interesting lesson for me to learn about myself, or maybe actually I just really want a steak.

A steak because, although I would say bacon, this book has probably put me off ever eating pig again ever. Because, apparently, pigs get so incredibly depressed and distressed being in confinement on factory farms that if the pig directly behind them bites off their tail (because of the distress) then they're too depressed to even care about it. HOW IS THAT OK WTF ARE WE ALLOWING TO HAPPEN HERE?! Other fun facts: mushrooms are really weird and we don't really know anything about them, basically everything on the McDonald's menu contains corn, and the guy who developed fertiliser also developed Zyklon B, AND HE WAS JEWISH, although (probably thankfully he died before the Holocaust), and these are just the ones I can remember. Seriously, this book is really good.

And so. I fully recommend that everyone read this book (I am literally trying to lend it to everyone all the time at the moment), and become more aware and caring about the things you buy to eat, not just when it comes to meat, but also in general, for your health, and for the planet. Peace out, hippie whatnot and whosits.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Sunday Sundries: Summer is here, so obviously I am getting harassed

Sunday greetings, fellow internetians!
I have had a week of life and it has been ok! Let's see... I had both Monday and Wednesday off this week because of blessed bank holidays and being generally underemployed respectively, and it was pretty great. Last Sunday I went to the seaside and had the world's best ice cream:
so Monday I just spent pretending it was Sunday and went to see my parents and whatnot. Wednesday I had a whole load of life admin to do, but that was mostly non-time consuming and so I spent the majority of the day outside reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and feeling mightily pleased with myself (harassment story to come). And THEN yesterday I went to big London because there was an exhibition I wanted to see and it's finishing next week and, even though it was approximately 5000ÂșC yesterday, I couldn't deal with the possibility of not seeing it, and so off I went to sweat on trains and the tube and in Hyde Park and basically everywhere I went.

On the exhibition: it's at the Natural History Museum and it's called Otherworlds, and essentially it's really amazing photos of the planets, moons and asteroids in our solar system as well as, y'know, the sun. I think I probably don't talk enough about how much I love space here, but I really fucking love space, and this exhibition was kind of partially science and partially art which is pretty much how I like my life (and exhibitions). Mercifully it was also dark and cool, unlike the rest of the Natural History Museum which was like an oven. I spent the rest of the day eating lunch in Hyde Park, and then strolling down to Oxford Street to buy some things (many things...) (I bought a swimming costume, when am I even going to swim, what has become of my life?)

Anyway. The sun is out so I am generally a happy Laura, and also I have been wearing summery dresses that show a lot of boobage. And my god. The men have been feral, it's kind of gross. If we discount the number of times I saw my chest get eye contact yesterday (that's right fellas, I noticed), I've had two separate guys in cars being pervs. The worst was on Wednesday, when I was innocently walking down my road when this guy in a van (of course) drove past, actually LICKED HIS LIPS, and shouted 'nice tits!' I didn't disagree with him, but didn't exactly need the validation in such a gross way. Yesterday, though, I was walking home from the station laden with bags when I heard a beep and saw this old guy driving past me and grinning. I was so perplexed by this that I assumed he was trying to tell me I'd dropped something or whatever, but I looked around me, saw nothing, so assumed my breasts had been spotted again.

I don't really know where I'm going with this. Having read Everyday Sexism, I know that many women feel threatened and upset by this kind of thing, whereas I mostly just feel pissed off and, y'know, confused. It's still a really weird phenomenon- the intention isn't for these dudes to actually ever have a meaningful interaction with you, and they can't possibly think it's alluring in any way to just yell things at girls, so why do these guys do it? Is it the horribly misguided belief that their opinion on women's bodies matters even the slightest bit? Or is it, as my friend pondered, that they just haven't been weaned yet?
Either way, it doesn't affect my life in the sense that I'm going to stop wearing whatever the fuck I want at all times of the year, but if anyone wants to give me an insight into the minds of these dudes, I'd definitely be willing to hear that.

But anyway- I hope you all have a fabulous week, with much sunshine and many opportunities to let your girls get a bit of air. I am barely going to be home for dinner at all this week, which is very exciting, and I shall let you know all about that next week.

Monday 2 May 2016

Things I Read In April

Aprillllll. You were weird and excellent at times, but also really rubbish at others. I got to see some of my favourite people and go to the Kent coast and get unspeakably drunk, but I also celebrated my first birthday with no grandparents and got rejected from a job I kinda wanted and had some emotional messiness going on. I'd love to blame the fact that I didn't read very much on any or all of these things, but whilst being emotional and seeing lovely people does indeed take up some time, I definitely had more time to read than the amount of books I finished suggests.

To be completely fair to me, I am in the middle of approximately 400 books (actual number... about 5 or 6?) so if I had been focused on less things at once I could probably have sneaked another couple in there, but as it is, I just read a modest three books this month, mostly on the train to and from Kent. The books!

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Murakami! One has to treat oneself in one's birthday month, I feel, and what better way to do that than a Murakami? I read this in a couple of days, so obviously I liked it that much, but I also have some qualms. Not qualms, exactly, but little niggles that made it not-quite-perfect for me. So essentially the story follows Tsukuru as he goes back through his past in order to figure out why his friends all stopped talking to him one summer during university, so that he can move on with his life and kind of be a proper person, in the way he hasn't since this happened. It's all good stuff, but the thing is... It wasn't that weird? And I don't mean that as a compliment since we're talking about Murakami. There are elements of oddness and unease as in all his books, but they are also all explained away as dreams or kind of visions or whatever, which made everything less weird than usual. The ending is INFURIATING (but in the way it's supposed to be, which almost makes it better except aghhhh no) and overall I just came away feeling like 'yeah, I liked you... But not as much as lots of other Murakamis'.

But still, it's Murakami so it's better than like 95% of other books.

In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
I HAVE REVIEWED THIS ALREADY! See? It's right here. In case you can't be bothered to read it though, essentially it's a very human dystopian tale, it's short enough that you don't mind carrying it on a train, and it's Auster so it's always pretty great. BOOM read it.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
I bought this book for the title. It's such a good title. I started to read it almost as soon as I got it, but gave up really quickly because I was very tired and it was very very poetical prose. The blurb tells me that Elizabeth Smart had 4 children with a man who was another woman's husband, and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is essentially based on her experience with that, and I'm glad the blurb told me that because I'm not sure I would have grasped it from the book. What I'm saying is this: This book was beautiful to read, and the sentences are wonderful, but I'm not sure I really grasped the story at any point (sort of like The Great Gatsby, only worse. Or more poetic. Or something). Even now I'm not even sure if I can tell you that I conclusively liked it, and I had the hardest time deciding whether to keep it or not (as part of my strict anti-sentimentality of books policy, I have to decide with every book I read if I'm going to read it again or not, and if not it has to go).

I've kept it because it's beautiful and because I really want to understand what I read. And because dammit, just look at the damn title, I can't even.

So yeah, books! I read 'em. Go me! What did you read in April?