Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Books vs. Music

One of my least favourite questions when meeting and getting to know people is, 'what kind of music do you like?'. I have never, ever given a satisfactory answer to this question, and I don't know what to do or say in response, except for some kind of shitty little shrug.

My confession: I don't really like music.

There, I said it.

It's not so much that I dislike music, and more that it just isn't that important to me, but when I try to trace the cause of this apathy, I draw a massive blank. My dad is very into music and plays guitar, as do both my brothers. I even learned to play the piano for over a decade, so I can't possibly hate music. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I just don't really get it. I struggle to understand the effect it has on people who are passionate about it. I can listen to music, but more often than not, I prefer silence - if it's some background noise I'm looking for, I would sooner put on a DVD and half-listen to the dialogue than to an album. I find music too distracting. I find it requires genuine effort to sit in a room with music playing.  It doesn't move me or evoke much in me. It's too foreign to my ear.

I didn't always 'dislike' music. The first album I ever got on cassette was Michael Jackson's Thriller which I played obsessively, and I remember loving the Spice Girls in their heyday. During the days leading up to a long car journey with my family, I would partake in an elaborate ritual which involved making various mixtapes from dozens of other tapes to play on my Walkman, which helped with my chronic my motion-sickness. These days I drive a car of my own, and listen to music when I'm in it, though there are only about four CDs of miscellaneous songs which I have on rotation (occasionally I will borrow a real CD and play it over and over again until I can't bear it any longer). I find that I only really listen to them because I dislike the radio even more than I dislike music.

One of my hesitations with music is the way it divides people. People are defensive of their favourite bands the way that they're defensive of their favourite football team, or their religion. Things get heated. Music-lovers make judgements on people based on what they proclaim is a great album. What it really comes down to is: are you cool or not?

It might shock you to learn that I am not cool.

I definitely feel self-conscious about my lack of knowledge, which is not easy to admit. With books or films, I'm relatively confident that I can at least back up my opinions, and not care what someone else thinks. I know that my musical exposure is limited, but I don't like to be judged as stupid, so I tend to keep quiet about it, or just smile blankly when the conversation shifts that way, which is a habit I loathe. I never want to be that girl who giggles and nods even though she has no clue what the hell anyone is talking about - even if you disagree with someone on their taste in music, at least they have a fucking opinion. Because I have such difficulty admitting I'm a musical newb, I can't participate completely in these exchanges and I tune out. Subsequently, I'm never exposed to music through conversation with people who might actually help me learn.

I feel un-knowledgable, which makes me feel vulnerable, but moreover, I feel like a fraud. Perhaps my lack of musical inclination not only means that I'm not cool, but more importantly, that I don't have a soul. What kind of hollow, empty creature doesn't listen to music? It's embarrassing, and it bothers me because music is universal to pretty much all cultures, unlike writing and film. Am I missing something fundamental from the spectrum of human experience? I don't feel dead inside, but I do wonder sometimes if I'm missing out on great culture and on connections with my fellow humans.

I often say to people that I'm more into books and films than music, and that's true, rather than a deflection from the question. The only comparison I can think to make is that the way someone feels about their favourite song, I feel about my favourite book. I don't know what the fuck I'd do with my top five desert island discs for my only entertainment on an actual desert island.

Probably the largest factor that continues to keep me estranged from music is how daunted I am by the whole thing. There is so much out there, and it changes so rapidly, that I just don't know where to start. I'm 25 now, so when it comes to my peers I've got 25 years of music to catch up on, and that's only if you're counting good music that was released while I've been alive. There's also the shitty music that I would have to sift through. And the decades before that which I also have no clue about. And stuff from all over the world.

I'm left helpless and overwhelmed. The task is too big for me. I must have missed a crucial developmental stage in my adolescence when most people are starting to learn what kind of music they like. In several cases of children raised by wolves, scientists found that after a certain age, children permanently lose the ability to pick up human language. It's too late for me too: I fear that I'm a less tragic version of these feral children, doomed to remain tuneless forever.

Monday, 24 February 2014

186/111 - How To Be Alone by Sara Maitland

I bought this book after reading a piece by Sara Maitland in the Guardian. I've read a couple of the books from this series so far and I really like them. I think they are charmingly designed, and they cover a range of topics that I'm interested in exploring. They are all published by the School of Life, who also run courses out of their centre in London. I would love to attend one, as I'm sure they are probably all thoughtful and interesting areas to look at. I also have another one of Sara Maitland's books, A Book of Silence, which I have had for years and never read.

This book is for people who are interested in solitude and being alone, which is why I was interested in it. I consider myself to be mainly an introvert who is able to display extrovert qualities, and being not-alone around others drains my energy. When I take annual leave, as I have done this week, it is partly to be away from people. There are times that I have spent a lot of time with others and really enjoyed myself - I live with my boyfriend, for one; and I have been on several holidays with good friends where I am surrounded by them all the time - but there are more times where I can recall being in a situation and having had enough of being around others. I don't see anything wrong with this, although my lack of extroversion can make me feel like I'm missing out sometimes, but more often than not I just want some peace and quiet.

When I was taking it home, both my boyfriend and my boss asked me what I had bought, and they were both together when I took it out and showed them the cover. I pitched it as a sort of philosophy book, of sorts. My boyfriend made a jokey 'should-I-be-worried' face and they laughed it off. So people can be mildly uncomfortable with the idea of solitude, which is fine. I understand that for most people, being alone all day is not what they would consider fun, but I love it.

I'm not sure where this tendency in me comes from. I grew up with both my parents around, and I have a brother who is 13 months younger than me, so we were close in age growing up and spent a lot of time together. My parents are both only children and we have a small family as a result. No big get-togethers with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles. My mother is also from France which means that her extended family are farther away than usual. I think my parents are both pretty introverted - there are regular small gatherings but no huge raucous parties. I was always more of an introvert growing up, too. I always tended to feel on the outside, and I think I still do to a large extent, but I have learned to mask it in order to get by in life. That does tend to come at a price - I end my days much more tired than if I worked somewhere quiet and on my own.

I really enjoyed this little book, although for me personally it didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, it was more a good gauge to affirm some things that I already knew to be true - that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be alone; that some people find it healthy to spend a lot of time in their own company; and that being alone for extended periods of time might actually be really blissful. Maybe I'll get the chance to try it one day.

185/111 - The Circle by Dave Eggers

I received this book as a present for either my Christmas or birthday this year, I can't remember anymore. I requested it because I have never actually read any Dave Eggers before, despite him being a rather influential literary figure (or so I'm told) but also because I was really intrigued by the premise of the book. The reason for my intrigue was that this is about a young woman who starts working for a powerful organisation called 'The Circle', which is the world's most powerful company, dabbling in the internet, social media, surveillance, social change, all sorts. And it therefore reminded me a little of the work that I do, in that it's a global and very desirable brand, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Mae is kind of down-and-out and only gets the job at The Circle when referred by her old college roommate. She starts out in customer experience, at the very lowest rung of the ladder, and starts out by treating the job like a 9-5. When she receives a reprimand for unknowingly snubbing a co-worker, she starts to realise that the demands of The Circle go far beyond her initial expectations. They expect total participation and total transparency, ranking the Circlers' in a public setting based on many different criteria. As Mae becomes more and more entangled in The Circle, she finds more and more areas of her life under scrutiny. Eventually things reach a head when, caught stealing, she volunteers to open up her life to total transparency by wearing a camera at all times. Mae becomes more shallow.

On the other side, her former boyfriend and her parents become alarmed quickly by the changes in Mae brought on by her joining this organisation that starts to resemble a cult / totalitarian state. Eventually, Mae becomes a monster, a truly detestable character.

I really enjoyed this. I was reading it during the week that I was working in Basingstoke, so I rather enjoyed having a short commute each morning on which to read this, as normally I'm stuck in traffic so no reading takes place (much to the relief of other drivers, I think). This is quite a chunky book, or maybe it just felt that way because it was a hardback and incredibly dense, but at no point did I feel like I was having to trudge my way through. It was a relatively easy read for such a large book. There is so much to it - it's both funny and frightening, and as much as it's unlikely to happen it also doesn't seem totally outside the realms of possibility. Very interesting indeed.

My own relationship with technology is pretty nonchalant, even though I use it every day and I have mobile devices coming out of my ears. I don't really use social networking all that much, mainly because I feel like it's kind of silly to do so. I have all the accounts (well, Facebook and Twitter - what else is there?) but I don't participate much in it all. I'm pretty sure that most people don't really care much what I have to say about a sandwich that I ate or how my commute to work was, so I tend to keep that kind of thing to myself. The idea of the opposite, of total transparency, is pretty unbearable - I would hate to have my every move watched and judged. There's no way that my everyday life is interesting enough for that kind of nonsense.

184/111 - I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

This is the book that has been holding me up. I actually read this at the end of January, which was ages ago now, however until now I couldn't be bothered to gather my thoughts on it. In fact, I still can't but I want to be done thinking about this one now so I'm going to write about it and then just move on. The reason that I haven't written about it yet is that there was too much to think about with it, and I'm still not sure I've articulated it that well.

I downloaded this collection of essays after reading a snippet of one somewhere else and decided that they might be nice and insightful to read. The passage which initially enchanted me was about "rapture of the deep", and I read the entire essay and it was wonderful. This is the passage which was really magical:

"There's something called rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver sends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can't tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he's liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can't adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book."

Here is another from a different essay entitled Blind as a Bat:

"Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on…Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."

What I really love about these two passages is that they totally sum up how I feel about reading. When I'm reading something good, something really good, it's almost like I'm having an affair, or that I have an exciting secret. Or that I'm falling in love. I think about the book all the time; I look forward to when I can next spend time with the book; I want to go to bed with the book; I want to tell everyone around me about it and I don't understand how people can be walking around not in the same obsessive haze as me. When I'm not reading a good book, or when I am reading something very bad, much like a bad date, I don't want to read any more books for a little while while I get over the trauma of the previous one. When I start to read a book and I am not totally enthralled by it, I feel horribly disappointed and cheated.

Books bring meaning to my life. I don't know what I would do without them. I spend my waking moments either reading them or thinking about reading them, and fewer of those moments writing about them. I think this might be a topic that requires some further dissection, so watch this space.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

183/111 - Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

This book is very much on the opposite end of the spectrum to the Veronica Roth books. This is grounded in our world with real characters facing real problems, and it was funny, and sad, and believable and totally incredible. I absolutely loved this and I read the entire thing in one sitting. The most amazing thing about this is that it made me feel something other than wanting to roll my eyes.

Eleanor is the new girl at her school, she is large with red hair and an odd fashion sense and generally doesn't fit in. She is also from a poor family who are constantly scrounging to make ends meet, and her mother is a browbeaten woman who is beholden to Eleanor's awful stepfather. Park, on the other hand, comes from a loving family and doesn't want for anything. He is quiet and enjoys reading and listening to music. They meet when Eleanor sits next to Park on her first day of school, and even though he initially doesn't want to be associated with her, a sort of alliance forms between them in the shape of comic books and mix tapes passed between them. Before you know it, they are on speaking terms, then on hand-holding terms, and then on kissing terms. The whole thing is just so tender and sweet, totally the opposite of the books I read earlier that week.

The book alternates from both of their perspectives as they gradually become closer, and the whole time I felt exactly what they felt - tense, anxious, excited, all of it.

There are also lots of topics in there that are pretty uncomfortable to deal with, such as the poverty that Eleanor's family seems to be stuck in - so poor that they don't even have a door to their bathroom and Eleanor is forced to take baths with her mother watching out for her in case her stepfather comes home and catches a glimpse of her. There are some moments in there that made me feel such pity and sadness for Eleanor and her family, and such frustration at some of their actions.

And the ending - so sweet and hopeful and sad. It was just perfect. So good, I don't know what else to say. I was with them the entire time, which in my mind made this such an excellent book.

182/111 - Insurgent by Veronica Roth

As I mentioned, I was really swept up in Divergent and although I had a lot of problems with it, I actually blasted through it in one evening. I enjoyed the momentum and I do love speculative / dystopian fiction.

So then I began to read Insurgent in spite of my doubts, which is where it really started to unravel. It picks up immediately from the ending of Divergent, but I found that I couldn't really suspend my disbelief any further, and no longer being swept up in the pace of the first book, Insurgent just didn't hold up in the cold light of day. I was bored of reading about serums and hallucinations, and I didn't understand why Tris would keep company with some of the more unsavoury characters who were so obviously up to no good. It was either stupidity on the part of the character or just poor plotting. I think I was just bored of the whole thing.

Next, I was being introduced to more and more characters which is when I started to realise that I just didn't care anymore. There are times in my life where I'm doing something, like getting out of the shower and drying off with a towel, or using a particular item in the kitchen and when I'm done with my towel or the item, I just let it drop out of my hands and I walk away and abandon it completely. I'm done with it. It's not a conscious decision to relinquish the item, it's more that I'm hypnotised by the process that I'm engaged with, which might be getting ready for work, or cooking my dinner, and I'm already thinking about what I'm going to do next, and when I'm finished with that step there is this slightly mechanical ending before transitioning to the next step. That's how I felt about this book. I was reading it, and then a moment later, I was not. I abandoned it. Something in me just switched off and I knew it was over.

Kind of a shame, but it wasn't for me, so now I'm moving onto the next great book. And it really is a great one.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

181/111 - Divergent by Veronica Roth

I picked this book up recently after hearing that it was going to be made into yet another film trilogy. I had heard that it had a similar feel to it - a dystopian future with a lead female character, not too much mushy crap like in Twilight - so I thought I'd give it a try as that sort of thing is right up my street. I will tell you now that I have given up approximately halfway through Book 2 as I was not enjoying it enough to continue, which I will expand upon next time.

The main character and narrator in Divergent is a teenage girl called Beatrice Prior. She is a member of one of five factions which exist in this Dystopian future, with each faction having slightly different personality traits. The idea is that you fit into one of these factions homogeneously upon turning sixteen, however Beatrice is what's known as 'divergent' because she shows an aptitude for more than one faction.

She decides to leave her old way of life behind in a sect known for their selflessness and charity to go to a faction known for their violence and bravery and become an initiate there. She now has to compete with others to get a permanent place in the faction, which involves all sorts of things like learning how to beat each other up and how to throw knives and jump from moving trains, for some reason. They really love to jump from moving trains, and I found myself baffled as to why there were so many descriptions of this act.

While this is all going on there are rumours of impending war between the factions, and Beatrice (who has renamed herself Tris) is making some friends and some enemies and also catching the eye of her instructor, whose name is Four (like the number). So there's loads going on. Oh, also she can't let anyone know that she I'd divergent because they are considered to be dangerous traitors.

I was hoping for this trilogy to be more Hunger Games-esque however sadly I didn't enjoy this nearly as much, for a variety of reasons. Divergent seemed to highlight for me some deeply rooted problems I have with fiction aimed at teenage girls:

  • The puritanical nature of the characters and the repression of sexual desire. Yes I know these books are aimed at teenagers and so they can't be all sex and violence, but why can't the girls in these books ever just be allowed to admit that their feelings are sexual without it being some sort of taboo? I'm not suggesting full-on erotica, but there was a sense of shame that I felt very keenly with Tris and her feelings for Four that made me feel really uncomfortable. There's also a scene in which she is groped by some of the other initiates and rather than admit what has happened, Tris can't even bring herself to say where she has been touched which came across as immature. Lady, if your characters can't even bring themselves to name basic human anatomy, then you probably shouldn't be writing about sexual assault. The sexual repression in these books really seems to deny something which is inherently tied in with the experience of being human and the experience of being adolescent.
  • I hate hate HATE the self-deprecation of the girls in books like this. They never think they are good enough, they are self-conscious, they sacrifice themselves, they are overly clumsy, they never think they are beautiful. I get that that's natural and they have a struggle to overcome and be reborn or whatever, and I can't claim to have been a particularly secure teenager, but the insecurities in some of these characters are just too much. I wonder which is the bigger taboo - a female character who acknowledges her sexual desire, or one who has some confidence and character, and isn't just an empty vessel waiting to be filled (metaphorically) by the next cute teenage boy that comes along.

I haven't read that widely when it comes to YA fiction, but some of these trilogies are so popular that they seem like a potentially good barometer of the kinds of messages that teenage girls are receiving. And I hate the messages - suppress your sexuality (Divergent) or have someone do that for you (Twilight) or make sure you choose between one of two men (basically any other series, take your pick) because god forbid you choose neither, or find another path to walk. The Hunger Games was less guilty of the former of these because Katniss is a resourceful and talented female character in her own right, but I was still deeply disappointed by the lame love triangle in which neither of the choices were that appealing. I was also disturbed by how she has to perform at being feminine with all the stupid dresses and fluttering eyelashes in order to get the public to like her. The trilogy closes on her with the eternally dull Peeta and a couple of children running around in a field or something. Tragic, if you ask me.

The pace was fantastic in this book, and had it been the first YA trilogy I read, I probably would have thought of it more favourably, but the frustrations that have built up from other series' have sadly clouded my enjoyment of Divergent.