What Not To Say To People Who Are Worrying

I finally succumbed to the hype and read The Fault in Our Stars recently. Everywhere I go, I see piles of copies of it in book stores, posters advertising the movie and people enthusing about it on social media, so I thought I would try it and see what all the fuss is about. The latest craze in YA fiction, The Fault in Our Stars fits into a genre which is being called “sick lit”. First we had sparkly vampires (e.g. Twilight), then we had dystopian worlds (e.g. The Hunger Games and others) and now, “sick lit”, as YA books with themes of terminal illness are flying off the shelves.

The Fault in Our Stars (image courtesy of Goodreads)

The title of The Fault in Our Stars is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, for we are underlings”. It is a majestic title and the pages that follow are a sensitively written portrayal of a teenage girl, Hazel, who is suffering from terminal cancer. A medical breakthrough drug bought her a few more years, during which she falls in love with a boy, Augustus Waters, who has started coming to the Cancer Kid Support Group that Hazel attends.

Although the characters are vividly portrayed and Green’s writing made me feel sympathetic for Hazel and Augustus, I felt rather underwhelmed after I turned the last page. I read it quickly but do not feel compelled to pick up another of Green’s books. His writing, and The Fault in Our Stars in particular, has legions of fans. Am I missing something? Maybe I should try it again.

There was, however, one particular aspect of this book that I found thought-provoking: the way people use metaphors and analogies to describe serious illnesses, such as describing cancer as a battle or as a journey. To me, the phrase “cancer journey” sounds like trying to put a positive spin on it, when sometimes there isn’t one. Yet society constantly uses metaphors for things that we find difficult to talk about, such as illness and death.

It’s part of our incessant need to be positive, to reassure ourselves.  I have met similar situations myself, when well-meaning people say “I’m sure everything’s going to be fine”. But I know what it feels like for everything to not be fine. Right now, in fact, I’m feeling uncertain and fearful about the future because I am worried about certain things going on in my life at the moment, notably my mother’s need for further medical treatment soon. She was very ill less than two years ago and needs more treatment, otherwise she will become ill again. I am grateful for every day that she is with me but I worry about her a lot.

From my point of view, the least helpful thing to say to people who are worrying is “everything is going to be okay”. Instead of trying to quell someone’s worry with a well-intentioned but unhelpful platitude, just listen.

“Compassionate listening brings about healing” — Thich Nhat Hanh

Chocolate cake…..without the guilt!

My sister introduced me to The Unrefined Kitchen when she made their refined sugar-free, gluten-free chocolate cake for my niece’s 2nd birthday. It was scrumptious, so much so that I made one myself this weekend! As this chocolate cake is sweetened with honey and has no refined sugar in it, perhaps it should be renamed the “Eat-As-Much-As-You-Like-Without-Feeling-Guilty Chocolate Cake”. ;)

For the cake recipe and many more delicious recipes, click here to go to the Unrefined Kitchen.

A woman’s best friend….

I have a guest staying for the day. He is very agreeable and has perfect manners. :)

sherlock

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit
” (Pablo Neruda, translated from the Spanish below)

“Alegre, alegre, alegre
como los perros saben ser felices,
sin nada más,
con el absolutismo de la naturaleza descarada”

The end of the academic year

Classrooms and exam halls lie empty, until the academic year begins anew

Public domain image

At the beginning of June, I published this post, which marked the third anniversary of Cultural Life and let my readers know that my blogging over the next few days would be sporadic due to my exam schedule.

I am very happy to report that, despite the multiple stresses of that week (the usual exam nerves, mixed with increased stress from getting some not so great news about my mother from the hospital), all the exams were fine. I have a tendency to pressure on myself and I always think that I can do better but when I got the results last week, I was delighted. Overall, for my second year of university, I achieved a First! In GPA terms, because many of my readers hail from Canada and the U.S., that equates to a 4.0 GPA. Not too shabby! :)

Now that I have absolutely no studying to do and no deadlines to work towards, I have more time for reading non-academic books without feeling guilty. This morning, I finished reading Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

It is a highly acclaimed novel which has won many awards, including the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award and the U.K. Man Booker Prize. The story spans three continents and explores themes of race and identity, focusing on the main character, Ifemelu, who leaves her native Nigeria and her teenage sweetheart, Obinze, to study at college in the States. The novel begins with a description of a Princeton summer and evocatively compares its “lack of a smell” to other American places in the summer: “Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage”. Ifemelu is an immigrant and she views the U.S. from the refreshing perspective of a non-native.

Her insights into modern-day America are sometimes pithy and always insightful. To express her observations, she starts a WordPress blog, writing about race and racism in the U.S. from the point of view of a “Non-American Black”.

Ifemelu: “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America”

Her blog, entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, soon becomes well-known for its controversial, unreserved and challenging posts about racial identity and ethnicity in the U.S. Many of her posts are included in the book and I have no doubt that if Ifemelu was a real life WordPress blogger, she would be featured on Freshly Pressed a few times!

Americanah is a novel of many genres. It is a story of returning to your roots, to the country which runs in your veins. Ifemelu and Obinze, at different times, both return to Nigeria and Adichie’s writing strongly evokes the spirit of living in the country: the juxtaposition between the wealthy Lagos businessmen and the traditional ways of life, the Nigerian heat and sounds and colours. After reading this novel, I feel like I was given an insight into parts of Nigerian society: the part that longs to better itself, the ambitious young men and women who seek education and opportunities in the U.S. and the U.K., and the wealth of political corruption in Nigeria.

It is also a romantic story of love, which is divided by bureaucracy and rejected visa applications. It is a story of the search to discover one’s identity and, above all, it is an insightful narrative of attitudes towards race in three different countries: America, England and Nigeria. It left me pondering anew how shocking it is that, in this day and age, people still face discrimination based on their skin colour, even in the wealthy, highly educated and highly developed nations on the planet. I’ll finish with a quote which stood out to me: “Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding”. Yes, indeed.

Have you read Americanah? If not, has my review made you want to pick it up?

“Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

The recently released movie, Belle, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great-uncle in the privileged setting of upper-class Georgian society. It is a costume drama and there are stately homes, pretty dresses and carefully landscaped gardens aplenty. However, it is an unusual costume drama because Dido was a wealthy mixed-race woman at a time when black or mixed-race aristocrats were almost non-existent.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

The director of Belle, Amma Asante, was inspired by this portrait, which shows Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted in 1779. The painting is extraordinary for its time because black or mixed-race subjects in Georgian paintings were rarely portrayed as equal to white subjects. Asante says that “Everything you see in the film, the vision I have created, comes from the painting” (quote source: Ham & High).

I saw the film last week and while I am always a fan of costume dramas, unlike many period drama films this isn’t a typical love story. There is a romance but that is mostly eclipsed by the focus on issues of class, gender and racial politics of the time in which Dido lived. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807 and the film is set in the 1780s, a time of great legal significance in the battle between those who opposed slavery and those who supported it. Belle is a costume drama with a difference!

My Literary Wish List

A few weeks ago, Emily January over at The Bookshelf of Emily J. posted this post with ten books that she wouldn’t mind getting for her birthday. Emily suggested that her readers could post their own literary wish lists too. My birthday isn’t for another eleven months but here are ten books I would be delighted to be given. Perhaps I will gift them to myself! ;)

Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English (2007) by Christopher Davies.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love language and the study of linguistics. One thing, out of many, that fascinates me about language is the fact that English has so many varieties around the world. I am interested in differences between the U.S. and the U.K. in general but language differences are especially interesting to me.

One Night in Winter (2014) by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There is something about literature which is set in Russia that I find absolutely enthralling. I read Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping, epic novel Sashenka a few years ago. It began in 1916, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and it was a compelling read. Sebag Montefiore is a historian as well as an author and so his novels are always scrupulously well-researched and historically detailed. He has written several books — fiction and non-fiction — about Russia and its history. I can’t wait to read One Night in Winter.

Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan

Set during the Cold War, Sweet Tooth is about a young Cambridge graduate and compulsive reader, Serena Frome, who is recruited to MI5 in order to infiltrate the literary circles of writers whose politics are in alignment with the government. It is a story of love, betrayal and espionage and it sounds intriguing!

Homage to Catalonia (1980) by George Orwell

This October, I am due to go to Catalonia to teach English. Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s account of his time spent fighting against the fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I have studied the Civil War as part of my degree and there is much more for me to learn about this brutal time in Spanish history, which led to a forty-year political dictatorship. The legacy of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive political regime can still be seen in Spain today; the cultural taboo surrounding the war and the dictatorship is only just starting to be broken.

Hard Choices (2014) by Hillary Clinton.

There are too few women in high-ranking political positions and in leadership roles in the workplace. Regardless of political views, I think Hillary Clinton is an inspiring person simply because she is a woman who has achieved a prestigious position, despite the sexism that women often face in the world of politics. I read her earlier memoir, Living History, and I look forward to reading her latest.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

Continuing with the theme of strong women who want to make a difference in the world, I Am Malala is a remarkable story of the determination of a Pakistani schoolgirl who speaks out for education. After being shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school and undergoing emergency surgery, Malala has been (and continues to be) on an awe-inspiring journey and has become the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is an amazing young woman!

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (2013) by David Rakoff

Until his untimely death from cancer in 2012, David Rakoff was a regular contributor to This American Life and I always enjoyed hearing his humorous and often poignant stories. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish was published posthumously in 2013 and Rakoff wrote it entirely in rhyming couplets. I have heard a number of his stories in rhyme on This American Life; they are often thought-provoking and always enjoyable.

Looking for Alaska (2006) by John Green

I keep hearing hype about John Green but have never read any of his books. I thought I would add this to my wish list so I can find out what all the fuss is about.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

Crime isn’t my usual genre of fiction but as a fan of Rowling’s writing and superb storytelling, I want to read this. I remember when the real identity of Robert Galbraith was leaked last year. There was such a media storm! I wrote a post about it entitled Musings on Fame, Fortune and the Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

In the Skin of a Lion (1997) by Michael Ondaatje.

This book was recommended to me by Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog. The main character is Patrick Lewis, who “arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario” (Goodreads).

What is on your literary wish list at the moment? Have any of the books on my wish list caught your eye?

Friday round-up

Here’s what I saw on the internet this week, in between my study sessions for upcoming exams:

News of an upcoming movie, based on a true story and set in England during the early 1800s, about the mixed-race daughter, Dido Belle, of an admiral in the Royal Navy. Dido was raised by her wealthy great-uncle and his wife in their aristocratic country home. Despite the privileged class of society in which she was brought up, she was restricted by the colour of her skin and shunned by people around her.

Here is an article which explains her story in greater detail: Dido Belle: the slave’s daughter who lived in Georgian elegance. I am looking forward to seeing the movie. Dido had a unique and fascinating life; I don’t know of any other mixed-race or black people who were members of the upper classes during a time when racism was the norm.

In other news, I wasn’t expecting to see breakdancing monks on my Facebook feed this week! The video in the link is fun to watch!

Finally, do you live in/near New York City? Fancy finding out which neighborhood is the most rat-infested? Check out the interactive rat information portal! I found the name of this very amusing when I heard about it: the name of the portal makes it sound like it is supplying information to the rodents themselves. ;-)

Have a fun Friday! Have you spotted anything interesting and/or amusing on the interwebz this week?

The Love Punch

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see the recently released movie The Love Punch. I love movies like this: British slapstick humour, a stellar cast and a silly but highly entertaining plot.

Kate, played by Emma Thompson, and Richard (Pierce Brosnan) are an amicably divorced couple in their fifties. One morning, Richard arrives at his investment company in London and discovers that it has been defrauded by a French corporate giant, Vincent Kruger, thus, destroying the pension funds of Richard, Kate and the employees of the company. In order to recoup the money, they team up and go to France with the idea of stealing a $10 million diamond that Kruger has just bought for his bride-to-be to wear to their upcoming nuptials. And then they get into all kinds of trouble…

A U.S. release date is still to be announced but according to Movie Box, it will be later this year.

Zucchini parmigiana

This delicious dish is ideal for a simple, nutritious evening meal. Technically, you should use Parmesan cheese in parmigiana recipes but I used cheddar instead and it worked very well!

Ingredients

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 zucchini, cut into ribbons about 1/2 cm thick
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 400-gram can of tomatoes
2 cups breadcrumbs
100 grams grated cheese (Parmesan or cheddar)
1/2 tsp pimenton (smoked paprika)
4 tbsp olive oil

1. Dice the onion and sauté with the crushed garlic in 2 tbsp olive oil until golden.
2. Add the can of tomatoes and the pimenton. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes.
3. Shallow-fry the sliced zucchini in the other 2 tbsp of olive oil (you will probably need to add more while frying) until the slices are golden and slightly brown. Turn the slices while frying so they are golden on both sides.
4. Layer the zucchini in a baking dish (I used one which was 27 x 21 cm), followed by the tomato sauce, then sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the zucchini and tomato. Finally, sprinkle the grated cheese evenly on top.
5. Bake at 340F/170C for 20 – 25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are crispy and the cheese is golden.
6. Enjoy! I served it with a side of garden peas and steamed cauliflower but it would also make a great lunch dish along with a green salad.