Thoughts on Sara Pascoe’s Animal

I have neglected my blog in the past month. For the usual blog not-posting reasons. Life things, business, general anger and inability to read due to the shit-storm that was the EU referendum… But here we are, now. I finished Animal by Sara Pascoe in the heady days before the UK became un-united, and am just now finding myself able to think about normal things again.

So! Animal is an amazing book. My boyfriend works in a bookshop and he asked me where I’d put it – funny books, memoir, feminism? I said yes, he could put it in any of those. I have a weakness for these Smart Thinking books – I find them interesting, especially the psychological ones. In fact, I’ve been reading this sort of book far more than novels this year. But back to the book: Animal made me see the ways in which we are very much part of the animal world, no matter how much we believe ourselves distant from it. We’re constantly reacting to stimuli; there are reasons why women are made to feel so awful by advertising. We may think that we’re in love / lust because of somebody’s sense of humour or intellect (or whatever…) but, even if we don’t want children, our bodies assume that we do. We pick people based on how well we think they would raise children. We are responding to our hormones, our chemicals.

Pascoe goes into the history of dating and mating and sex and why we do all of these strange things. We are not special, hyper-evolved beings. We are animals. We have a well-developed part of our brain that is bolted on to the side (top?) of our mammal and reptile brains, so we don’t always use it. From my now seemingly nihilistic viewpoint, it explains a lot. Pascoe goes into the reasons why we, for instance, commonly mate off in pairs. We have evolved to have this tendency because human babies need a lot of care:

‘CANCEL THE ORGY! The science books say we lived in social groups but with strongly bonded pairs raising their own children.’

And then there’s the memoir aspect of the book. Pascoe goes into her own sexual history, her background which informed her future relationships and the relationship she has with her body. Pascoe discusses everything honestly; it feels painfully relatable but almost revolutionary. We often avoid talking about such things. She writes:

‘It’s scary how much of my inner monologue is consumed by debating food choices, berating myself for what I’ve recently eaten and promising I’ll do better. […] My weight has stopped me doing things, has kept me from parties and dinners and awards ceremonies because the stress of attempting to look ‘nice’ has beaten me.’

I too have not gone out because my body didn’t look “right”, and I suppose most women have. But we don’t say this. We meekly cut important food-groups from our diets and blame ourselves, punishing ourselves for our transgressions. We at least need to acknowledge this as a serious issue.

And then, because it’s written by a comedian, there were plenty of moments when I was reading Animal when I actually and genuinely laughed out loud. A book like this could be so dry: there are a lot of facts in it. But, conversely, it could have been too much of a piss-take; I’ve read a few books by comedians and, although they can be funny, the comedian sometimes wants to be funny at the cost of everything else, which can undermine what they are saying. But this was a smart compromise.

So, I don’t know where I would put Animal in a bookshop. Pascoe has invented her own scientific-humour-memoir genre and I want to read more of it.


On Beige Short Stories

This article over on the Guardian by Mark Haddon is bloody wonderful. It helped me put my finger on something that has been irking me about some short stories I’ve been reading lately. Close reading stories has been an interesting exercise for me (and I’ve written some of my thoughts here, here and here). I found that certain stories which I enjoyed first time around are flimsy and dull when I re-read them. I’ve even avoided writing about some of the stories I intended to blog about because I just couldn’t be bothered to think enough about them after I’d finished reading, well-written enough though they were.

I think that people on writing courses are taught to see short stories in a particular way. I’ve noticed that I get higher marks if I play it safe in my stories, so perhaps others have found the same thing. I think this is a shame because, in our busy-worshiping lives, we need to grab attention if we want actual readers to notice our stories. This line of Haddon’s particularly stood out to me: ‘It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.’ I would rather watch Netflix than read another ho-hum short story, and for a long time I thought this was a failing of mine. Perhaps I wasn’t actually cut out to be a prose writer! Over the last two years I have become rather fond of the short story form, but only when it is done well. The strongest short story collection I have read recently is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. She isn’t trying to impress, because she’s Margaret Atwood. You get the sense in Stone Mattress that she’s just trying to amuse herself and, because of this, the stories are fun to read.

We are taught Chekhov and Carver. When we are taught that only one type of story is the sort of story we should be writing, it makes for some dull, beige stories. Particularly if the writer is just doing a bad impression of a writer they think they should emulate. Perhaps we are not even consciously taught this, perhaps this is just what people think short stories are.

I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and am looking forward to reading Mark Haddon’s new short story collection.

‘Make It Be Spring’

‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’

– ‘February’ by Margaret Atwood.

I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection, Eating Fire. It’s a selection of thirty years of her poetry from 1965 – 1995. Poetry collections are not the first books I reach for. I enjoy some spoken word poetry enormously, and have read some amazing poems recently that have just been echoing around my mind. But I struggle with some written poetry. I feel like I’m learning, though. There are some amazing poems in Eating Fire and I can see myself re-reading this over and over again.

‘February’ struck a big chord with me in particular because it’s actually February now (wow, right?!) and this month is the absolute worst. It’s bleak and your body is craving spring and light and warmth (and chocolate eggs) and it’s not getting them. Though I’m not experiencing the dreaded Winter Blues as much as usual this year, I am craving spring. Loved ones are over winter, we all just want it to be over now. The signs are there: daffodils and bluebells and snowdrops are around. It’s getting lighter again in the evenings. It’s coming, but it’s coming too slowly!

‘Winter. Time to eat fat / and watch hockey / […] February, month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre. / I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries / with a splash of vinegar.’

The forced romanticism of Valentine’s Day can make the bleak February feel worse. Even if you do have a partner, if you don’t feel romantic on that day then you can feel like a failure. And if you’re single, it’s probably best to hibernate until the disgusting pink chocolate hearts disappear. The one upside of February, though, and a day I always enjoy more than Valentine’s, is Pancake Day. We need more Pancake Days in February.

Or, better than that, make it be spring.

I find that I can get the ideas and images of one poem in my head at a time, which is a very different experience to how I read fiction. I get astounded with poems which get stuck in my head – how has the author managed to get across these ideas in that small amount of words? And it’s often simple ideas, such as how the seasons can affect how you feel, which can most stand out to a reader.

On Binge-watching and Depression

I read an article a couple of months ago on Buzzfeed. It was all about the TV series people watched when they were depressed (it’s here!). The thing I watched, in November and December last year, wasn’t on the list. For some reason, I was obsessed with House.

I was prescribed anti-depressants in November. I hadn’t taken them for nine years and I couldn’t remember how I felt when I was on them. I don’t remember being very present, so I was hesitant to start taking them again. When the doctor says that it’ll take around two weeks to adjust, they are being fairly conservative with their estimate. I couldn’t think – I got my boyfriend to look at an essay I’d written for uni because I couldn’t concentrate on it. It barely made any sense. My fears about medication had been confirmed but, hey, I didn’t really mind at that point.

I couldn’t read, couldn’t write and was feeling very tired all of the time. But at least I wasn’t constantly crying anymore. I had no job to go to and I was too tired in the mornings to get up to go to seminars. I found that I could do domestic cleaning and cooking tasks if I was listening to something. And then I realized that House was on Netflix.

When House was first on, in the long-ago time of the mid-noughties when we had to wait a whole week between episodes, I would watch it every week. I liked watching it with my mum the most, because she was a nurse (and has now just retired) and she would sometimes guess what the problem was before the doctors / actors. I liked that.

I started watching House. I can’t explain why I got so addicted to it. House made sardonic comments about the state of humanity – he lives in a worldview where ‘everybody lies’ – this appealed to me in my sedated but still fairly nihilistic state. It was a strange sort of comfort I got from watching these episodes. Based, as the show is, on Sherlock Holmes, there is a formula: clever man eventually finds out The Thing. Then everything goes back to normal.

Perhaps it was the curing of patients that got to me, perhaps it was the disaffected world view that Dr House presents. Whatever it was, watching Dr House was all I could do for a couple of months as my medication kicked in. I thought I was alone in the bizarre phenomenon, but the Buzzfeed article made me see that this wasn’t the case. When a person can’t read, they need to get their stories from somewhere. Maybe experiencing stories is something intrinsically vital to us. And, because television is so passive, it can just sit there with you as you attempt to get back on your feet. Binge-watching TV is not a solution to any problem, but it can help your brain switch off for a little while.

On Beauty and Feminism

I recently finished two books about beauty and make-up – Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest and Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint. I find these books very easy to read. I have always seen beauty and make-up as something fun, probably beginning when my grandma gave me a box of blue eyeshadow when I was eight (which I then used to emulate Victoria Beckham (!) when we put on a Spice Girls performance for our entire street, but that’s a different story. I wonder what I looked like…). I understand that many people have a problem with make-up, and I certainly do like to go bare-face because Patriarchy, but I love the glamour and fun in make-up. I go through phases with it, not being bothered sometimes and then lusting after fancy products. But then I think about capitalism and am put off again. But I like painting up my face and isn’t that what feminism should be about? – is the point of this paragraph.

So! To Pretty Honest. I love Sali Hughes’ writing for The Pool and The Guardian so was eager to read this. It’s no-nonsense advice – telling you who makes the best and worst particular products. She tells you what you really don’t need, and which products are a con, which was enlightening and is rare in beauty writing. Everybody seems so intertwined – products are highly praised and forgotten about when they have sold their quotas. Hughes really knows her stuff – which method of hair removal is most effective / painful; which brands make the best certain things. If you enjoy makeup but want to experiment or learn more, this is the book for you. Also, since following the advice in here, my skin has never looked better.

Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint was also amazing. It detailed the history of make-up, from pre-history to Hollywood to now. I found it interesting that (obvious) make-up was frowned upon when women had little to no rights. Red lipstick was worn by suffragettes in defiance of men who wanted them to look natural. I went through a vintage Hollywood-obsessive phase in my teenage years, so loved the chapters about those eras. The history of brands we know and love and popular brands that disappeared. Prior to a certain point, as well, men wore make up. People all over the world have painted their faces throughout history. It deserves to be explored.

I found it interesting that both of these books emphasise women. They are written by feminists who both love make-up, something that feminists (including me) seem to feel the need to confess. Surely, the more preferable thing is what Eldridge and Hughes are already doing – unashamedly basking in their love of make-up. Traditionally feminine things, such as make-up, are often ridiculed as being non-intellectual, as if that is important. Traditionally feminine pursuits are not bringing feminism down, internalised misogyny is. We all care about how we look to other people. Why ridicule people for it? It seems an old fashioned thing to do.

Dear Stranger…

I thought it fitting that my first blog post in five months should feature a book with ‘stranger’ in the title. So, for creativity’s sake, I thought I’d address this blog post to you, dear reader and possible stranger…

Dear stranger,

There’s a book I read recently which I think everyone should read. It’s that life-affirming. Dear Stranger sees fifty different authors write letters about happiness. Most letters are thought-provoking, some are hilarious and some are heart-breaking. All have something interesting to say. Happiness certainly doesn’t mean one thing to everybody.

Matt Haig writes a letter to his twenty-four year old self, knowing that the poor man has three years of clinical depression ahead of him. He writes that ‘the next three years are going to be the three worst years you will know.’ But he manages to end on a hopeful note, about remaining strong. It’s a wonderful letter and he speaks a searing truth when he writes that ‘depression draws a line. It separates life into eras. It will give you a BC and AD of your own life.’ Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive is in a similar vein and also well worth your time.

Caitlin Moran’s letter manages to be both funny and upsetting. It’s like when you’ve been crying a lot and you see something silly and then you’re laughing-crying. She talks about being kind to yourself, being careful with the things you tell yourself. So, she gives her inner voice the identity of a dachshund called Eric: ‘Oh, I treat Eric so well! I make sure I walk Eric everyday, for I have found he gets morose if he’s cooped up. […] He needs to gallop around a bit, woofing – which I disguise as jogging, and going “AHHHH!” at the top of steep hills. He needs regular meals, and a good night’s sleep, and to be stroked, curled up on the sofa, watching musicals.’ I think I might do this.

A lot of the more thought-provoking letters entertained the fact that, in our society, we are sold the idea of happiness. We’ll be happy when we buy a certain bag, for example. And this isn’t true. It is fairly damaging, in fact. If we are not happy we are told that there is something wrong with us. We aren’t designed to be constantly happy and selling the idea of happiness is exploitative.

Ah-hem. I also love the letters from Martha Roberts, who writes a letter to a depressed woman she sees in a cafe, and Ellen White, who is a far wiser teenager than I ever was. Tony Husband’s cartoon was very touching. It’s interesting to see what the authors come up with in terms of just writing a letter. Looking back at it, I enjoyed so many of the different perspectives in this book.

So I think you should read Dear Stranger, because it might affect you more than you’d think.

Yours sincerely,

Katharine Lunn.


A Blogging Slump And A Nature Reserve

Over the past few months, I haven’t felt much blogging-related enthusiasm. I’ve found myself forgetting about my blog and then feeling bogged down by the obligation of it. So I’ve decided to mix it up, just a little bit. I want to have some fun with blogging again, so I’ve decided not to review so many books here anymore. I’ll still talk about books though.

I remember reading somewhere that boredom sparks creativity; sitting doing nothing sparks ideas because your brain has to occupy itself. It is always entertained when it has a Wi-Fi connection, or when it’s playing a game. So with this in mind, at the weekend I decided to go for an eight-mile walk around a nearby nature reserve. I wanted to keep myself from being distracted and I wanted to be in the moment, properly.

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Nice morning walk at #Attenborough #Nature Reserve

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I watched herons fly across the river and learned about the various birds and fish and animals who live nearby. I generally prefer wilderness to a carefully planned nature reserve, but this was what I needed. The blackberries were young and green – in a few weeks they will be juicy and ready to be picked. Nature’s colours are more vivid in the summertime. I, literally, took the time to stop and smell the flowers. I can spend too much time staring at screens, and I can spend too much time in my head. Spending some time outside in nature rectifies this a little.

I want to enjoy blogging again, I want to be excited by this medium again. I have a few books I’d like to talk about, but I also want to blog about other things as well.

This is quite navel gaze-y. I promise it won’t stay like this!