Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Give E.L. James a break

Plucked this one out of the air, to soothe my itchy keyboard fingers...

E.L. James did a Twitter Q & A on Monday, and it went exactly as you'd imagine. People didn't hold back - if you want to see the worst of it, check Buzzfeed's take on the conversation. I'm not going to link that one though, because it just seems horribly inevitable that they would screenshot the most scathing tweets, give them some captions and call it an article. Listicle. Whatever.

Although I've criticised the author in the past, and have spluttered with laughter and disbelief when I have dipped into the books, I'm kind of bored by the critical mauling she still seems to be getting.

I'm tired of people slagging her off because they all seem to have completely forgotten that Fifty Shades started as fan fiction. Have you read any fan fiction? That world is a topsy-turvy place. It can be hysterically funny, sexy, dark, wildly creative, and it's a fantastic concept when you think about it - people feeling so much affinity for fictional characters that they start making up their own stories for them - but ultimately, it's just a bit of fun. A writers' playground. Anything can happen in the fanfic world, and that's the beauty of it. People are writing Sherlock - Fault In Our Stars* crossovers. The joy of that is utterly endearing, isn't it? And besides, there are worse hobbies to have.

*They're also writing Sherlock - My Little Pony crossovers. That leap just boggles the mind, quite frankly.

By her own admission, Fifty Shades was James' "mid-life crisis writ large. All my fantasies [are] in there". She said that in an interview. So her critics are laying into her for 1) having the tamest mid-life crisis in history - I mean, come on, who rebels by sitting at a laptop and writing four books? That's the kind of mid-life crisis I want, please - and 2) for writing about her fantasies. God forbid a woman should have a non-vanilla fantasy, and be open about it, right?

And while we're on that bit about her mid-life crisis manifesting itself as a sudden need to write thousands and thousands of words, let's just consider that very thing for a moment. She's written four books - four hugely successful books - since January 2009. How many people do you know who reckon they could bash out a book? How many people do you know who've actually done it? I've been trying to do it on and off - more off than on - for months, and it's really hard. You need to write a lot of words, apparently.

With the publishing industry in its current state, and with so much Content Available For Free On The Bloody Internet (one of my favourite rants), shouldn't we be applauding the authors that sell like E.L. James, celebrating the unanticipated successes, taking heart from the fact that books, whole books, are being bought in their thousands, if not millions?

Aside from anything else, James is laughing all the way to her accountant and back again, as she's reportedly worth £37 million now.

There's a lot of well-thought-out, articulate criticism that's been levelled at her, and that's OK, for the most part - books, films, TV programmes, etc shouldn't be exempt from criticism just because their creators never expected them to become successful. Of course it's worth looking at how women, various minorities, sex, relationships, power and so on are being depicted in popular culture, because that culture can be used as a mirror for what's happening in the real world. And the internet has made discussing and criticising works of art and cultural phenomena something everyone can do. Almost anyone can compose a tweet, write a blog post, fire off a Facebook status. Again, that's great. We can discuss the latest episode of Games of Thrones or Humans as they're shown, in 'real time' and share our reactions, create a conversation. But I think we're still in the toddler-tantrum phase of the internet, really. We're still making the rules for this relatively new environment as we go, and we're not there yet. We haven't quite civilised the space, figured out the etiquette; there's still too much shouting and rage, too many trolls and vitriol.

We just need a little perspective - she's a woman who wrote a story to amuse herself, and it made her very rich. Good on her.


On the Bambi bookshelf

Oh, You. I have to admit, I ignored this several times when I came across it in various bookshops, writing it off as one of those trashy summer thrillers that you might grab at an airport WHSmith's, in the last ten minutes before boarding. I don't think it's possible for me to have been more wrong about it.
I found it in my local library - I'm currently a bit obsessed with the place - and the comparisons to Gone Girl reeled me in. (Say what you like about GG but it was one heck of a page-turner.) Having finished Hausfrau, I was in the mood for another addictive, read-in-one-hectic-go piece of literary ass, and damn, did You deliver.

It's a classic tale - boy meets girl, boy fancies girl, boy becomes so obsessed with girl that he follows her, steals her phone, hacks her email and social media channels, breaks into her apartment, gets into a relationship with her, and then things get a bit murdery... It's Fifty Shades if Christian never discovered BDSM* and instead went full psycho. There's no major twist - a couple of minors, sure, but nothing gasp-worthy - but the impact of the book comes from the fact that it's written from the stalker's point of view. He's a brilliant character (unlike Grey, then) and I so, so want to see a film version of this. I know a sequel's due shortly, but a film would be fantastic. It says a lot for Kepnes' skill as a writer that you end up empathising with Joe a lot more than you do with his victims. It even manages to be a bit sexy, in places (yes, I'm doing some major self-analysis as I type that).

Days later, I am missing this book, and Joe, really quite badly.

Here's a fitting song for this post. You'll know what I mean when you listen to it.

*Yes, I am aware that what happens in the Fifty Shades books isn't an accurate portrayal of BDSM.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A list of things that learning to run has taught me about life

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who can't sit still, and those who love nothing more than sitting still. I am firmly in the latter camp. All my favourite things involve sitting down: reading, writing, eating cheese, drinking a wide variety of alcoholic beverages, watching The Thick Of It or Parks and Rec with DB and occasionally nudging him with my head in the manner of a needy kitten, so that he puts his arm around me... where was I? Oh yes. 

I forced myself to start running about two years ago, having decided that I needed to get into the swing of taking regular exercise before I hit my late twenties (I'm told that's when it suddenly gets a lot harder to get away with a serious cheese and beer habit). And to be fair, it's totally worked. I eat like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, but so far, I am in fact getting away with it. If ever there was a good reason to exercise, "you can eat loads and not go up a jeans size" is right up there.

I'm running my first 10k at the beginning of July, for charity - but also for me. When I signed up, I seriously doubted I'd be able to do it. "How am I going to have time to train, and work, and write, and work on my moving-to-Bristol plan, and still have a tiny sliver of a social life?" I asked Drummer Boy. "By being really organised?" he replied, and while I muttered something about that being incredibly rich coming from him, I knew he was right.

Since then, I've discovered that actually, 10k isn't very much at all, and once you can do 5k, you might as well double it. I've also discovered some other stuff, some of it strictly running-related, some of it not...

1) The idea of it is far, far worse than actually doing it. Seriously, the hardest bit is actually getting out the door. Once you're out there, anything could happen, but you're already ahead of everyone else that hasn't made it outside. You've already won, in a way. And so many things in life are like this - the idea of them is far worse than the reality.

2) When it hurts, it's simply a case of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. Again, finding this out is really helpful - when you've cocked things up in a mighty fashion, the only way to plough through them is to keep going, one tiny, manageable bit at a time. My MA dissertation tutor tried to tell me this several times, while offering me a box of tissues and undoubtedly wondering why students are so bloody melodramatic - "don't look at it as one big piece of work, look at it as quite a few small sections". (I mean really, what I wouldn't give now for my biggest problem to be 'having total freedom to write a 20,000-word Thing, using books and journal articles for inspiration and guidance'.)

3) You need good fuel. Turns out, peanut butter from the jar isn't a great pre-run snack. Why I had to find this out through bitter experience is anyone's guess, but I hadn't eaten a proper lunch, and was worried that running on an empty stomach would result in a poor run. You know what else results in a poor run? Horrible stomach cramps.

4) Sometimes you need specialist equipment. Not being blessed in the chest department, I shunned the idea of a sports bra for a while. Then, in a sudden moment of panic, I bought one. The first time I wore it, it was like being encased in an elastic band, and while my boobs were suitably restricted, so was my ribcage. Which is a pain, what with the trying to breathe and stuff. But Sports Bra and I are now firm friends, and when it goes on, I feel like I'm about to go on a Serious Mission to Fuck Shit Up. I'm Liam Neeson, but with messier hair.

It's not such a happy ending where running tights are involved. Tight is the word - the first and only time I wore them, it was like being sawn in half, slowly, with a bit of lycra. I'm sticking to ratty leggings until I stumble upon something better.

5) Your body is clever, so be nice to it. I'm in the process of honing the kind of thighs you need to be friends with Beyonce (3:40 onwards, I think), and while they may not look dainty when I swing them out of bed in the morning, they're strong. DB prodded me in the leg a while ago - don't ask me why, it's how he shows affection - and commented, "Jesus, your legs are rock-hard". (I know, I know - sexy, right?)

I also read somewhere that if you start running with poor posture and technique, your body will self-correct the more you do it. That's pretty smart - it won't let you keep doing something that's going to hurt.

A curious thing that's not clever as such, more really annoying, is that if I go for a run in the days leading up to what I like to call the uterine Red Wedding, it brings on such ferocious cramps that I've nearly thrown up on the pavement. They last about ten minutes, and the relief when they pass is so biblical, it's almost worth it. But not quite. Odd one. Being a woman is ace.

6) You can become the thing you think you're not. "I'm not a runner," I used to think. "I'm not the type of person that runs". And now I am, and insufferably smug about it too, thanks very much. The only way you can change yourself is just by giving it a go. At least three times, just to make sure. By the time you've tried the new thing a handful of times, you've basically made it a habit - hey presto, you're a runner.

7) You have to become your own cheerleader. It's very easy to beat yourself up when you start running, because it's hard work - "you can't do this, you're not fit enough, what on earth do you think you're trying to achieve here, you great lumbering lump?" That doesn't work. Paying attention to that particular voice in your head will only result in discouragement and misery. You have to be kind to yourself - patient, encouraging, supportive. If you wouldn't say it to a friend, don't say it to yourself.

This extends to the rest of life because you really do have to look after yourself. Parents, friends, lovers - they might get it wrong. Tell you the wrong thing, say something tactless that makes you wonder what the point is - of trying anything new, of changing the way you do things. Learning to cheer yourself on and let yourself of the hook when things go a bit tits-up is really useful.

What I also find useful is, when running, to imagine hordes of hot men cheering me on. The image of Tom Hardy shouting encouragement (in a brooding sort of way, obvs) as I pound along pavements is tremendously motivating.

Very motivating indeed.

8) The right soundtrack will get you through. My music taste is essentially "girls with guitars", but when it comes to running, I need something different. I turn to the eighties, for power ballads and rock anthems, and Eminem, for 'Lose Yourself'. It's hard to run badly when "success is my only motherfucking option, failure's not" is ringing in your ears (having thought about it, that's kind of a tautology, isn't it? Oh, never mind).

9) Those wanky hardcore runner types (WHRTs) who go on about it being almost meditative - "yah, I can really switch off, you know? I'm just in the zone" - aren't totally barking up the wrong tree after all. It sort of is. When you spend the whole day dealing with other people - bosses, colleagues, family, friends - it's actually quite freeing to take yourself off for a run. It's just you and your legs,  you and your heart, you and your own thoughts - no-one else can get in on this. It's yours. 

On the Bambi bookshelf


I finished Fiona Neill's The Good Girl last night, and I hate to say it, but I'm quite baffled at all the good reviews this book got. The plot itself is strong - teenage girl makes an explicit video that goes viral, while parents' marriage splinters but doesn't quite break, and all manner of secrets come out, or don't - but I'm amazed no-one's picked up on the frankly unbelievable characters or the clunky dialogue.

It's such a shame, because it's an ambitious novel, and the way Neill chooses to reveal how events play out is really well-executed, but sitting there going "but people don't talk like that!" and "Jesus, has this person ever met a teenager? They have never been, nor will they ever be this articulate and wise" is quite distracting. It bothers me, because I have a pet theory that if you're a writer, you should read everything you write out loud. If it sounds awkward when you say it, it's going to sound awkward when someone else reads it. It won't flow, basically. FYI, I read all my blog posts out loud until I can pretty much deliver them like speeches - albeit the kind of speeches that get made in pubs at last orders, or at friends' kitchen tables after a good half-bottle of wine each.

I'm going to shut up now, I think. This is a good song.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Good reads and good feeds

The last week or so has involved a hefty amount of my two favourite things - good food and good books. Drummer Boy and I made our regular pilgrimage to Bristol to celebrate another year of tolerating each other - which we do by eating and drinking a lot, and allowing ourselves one moment of public affection on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, where it all began.

Obligatory "look at my dinner!" photo.
On a friend's recommendation (thanks Jen, we owe you!) we went to Bravas, probably the best tapas restaurant outside of Spain. The chorizo was smoky and sweet, the Rioja was smooth as velvet, and having utterly fallen for their aubergine fries, served with molasses, I never want to eat a normal potato chip again. DB tried them before I did, and stopped me mid-sentence with a look on his face that suggested he was about to impart the secrets of the universe - "you have to try these. Now." I don't know what they did to those aubergines, but bloody hell. They tasted amazing. So if you're in Bristol and want a stupidly reasonable, utterly delicious dinner, and you don't mind getting cosy with your dining partner(s) - it's pretty intimate, good place for a date - go directly to Bravas.

Sticking with the small plate theme, but swapping Spain for Venice, last night we went to Polpo. We'd agreed to escort my teenaged sister and her friend to Wembley Arena, so they could see 5 Seconds of Summer (no, me neither). Seeing hordes of young girls in eyeliner and tartan - some accompanied by parents wearing baffled but amused expressions, some giggly in groups, some with mums who were determined to make a night of it - brought on an attack of nostalgia. I remember the second stadium-sized gig I ever went to (the first was the Spice Girls; I regret nothing) - Green Day at Milton Keynes, Sunday 19th June 2005. It was a scorchingly hot day, made hotter by sheer excitement. I remember looking around the crowd of thousands, thinking it was strange, and brilliant, that live music is one of the few remaining good reasons for so many people gathering in one place at the same time.

Anyway, back to Polpo. Venetian tapas, essentially. I'd heard good things about it and since we had to be in London for the evening, I thought we might as well have a nice dinner. And it was nice - the service was impressively attentive for London, and the waiter explained the menu, which was helpful. The highlights were unarguably the polenta, which was filling and full of flavour, and the rabbit terrine (sorry, bunny-lovers). We shared a little tiramisu pot for pudding, which was perfectly pleasant but ever so slightly too sweet, and wondered if perhaps we needed to return at a later date, to explore the menu a bit more - DB had his eye on the calamari, I think. I'm not overly struck on eating things that have tentacles, so for once, he'll get that plate to himself.

On the Bambi bookshelf: Bristol edition

I put Owen Jones' The Establishment on hold, as I wanted something that felt a little less like a politics lecture - so I took Late Fragments: Everything I Wanted To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life). Not exactly bright and breezy reading for a romantic couple of days away, but still a beautifully-written book, chock-full of memories and well-chosen literary references, and, above all, love.

Next up was Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that it's the only thing I've been capable of talking about since I bought it on Monday. I'd been waiting to read this for a good couple of months, as it had been reviewed as this summer's must-read, and compared to Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary. As I've not read the former, and only made it halfway through the latter, I can't say if it lives up to that particular hype, but what I will say is: you have to read this book. It lives in your head when you're not reading it, and when you are, you forget to do things like eat lunch or go to bed at a reasonable hour.

I might be biased here because this book caters specifically to my own literary kinks, which are as follows:

- unlikeable yet somehow sympathetic protagonists

- unlikeable yet somehow sympathetic protagonists who are female*

- stories that explore female infidelity. We are so familiar with the "middle-aged man having an affair with his secretary" story, or the "man who feels trapped by marriage and family life so he goes off to be seduced by some broad" - these plots are thundering great cliches now. But women shagging around - that's still something that's rare. When a woman in a TV drama, or a film, or a novel, has casual sex, it will always be a talking point for reviewers: "here is a woman who isn't emotional about sex - guys, look! Gather round!"

*You still don't see enough women not giving a shit, or having affairs and not torturing themselves with guilt, or doing exactly what they need to do to get by. God, I love a female character who's difficult and selfish - go figure.

What haunted me most about Hausfrau though was the way it crept inside my head - for all her passivity, Anna's voice and mood somehow get into the reader's bloodstream. Only two other books have done this to me - when I read John Niven's Kill Your Friends, my inner monologue became even more scathing and expletive-ridden than it usually is, and when I recently re-read the gorgeous, whimsical I Capture The Castle, I couldn't fathom why I spent three days in a strangely wistful, not-really-on-this-planet mood. And then I realised - I'd caught it off Cassandra, the story's narrator. Turns out, I'm not alone in this; a friend - who is one of the nicest, cleverest people I know - told me he became a complete arse while reading Martin Amis' Money.

Once I'd finished Hausfrau, I was in the mood for some Jilly Cooper or similar - pacy but fun, nothing too dark - so I tried Horsham library, thinking they were bound to have something suitable. Annoyingly, they didn't, but I did find The Good Girl, which came out recently and has been on my to-read list for a couple of weeks. I'm expecting good things, given its topical subject matter. I'll let you know.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Eat, drink and be merry

This was an amazing dinner. Food guilt? What food guilt?

Can everyone stop wanging on about 'clean eating' please? (When I say 'everyone', the people who'll know who I'm referring to will be the people - probably women, yes - who, like me, spend their internet time flitting between Twitter, the Guardian, and Instagram. No, I don't have a life.)

Hadley Freeman puts it excellently - as always - here if you need a quick catch-up.

So yeah, if your internet habits tend towards the shallow, as mine do (an assortment of beauty/lifestyle blogs, the afore-mentioned Instagram, the lifestyle sections of various news sites), you'll know what I'm talking about. Glamorous, photogenic young things with impractically long hair, painfully stylish food blogs and frankly insulting book deals. The ones who extol the virtues of baking cakes using avocado and sweet potato and cacao powder, instead of flour, sugar, butter and eggs, like normal people.

I'm not against eating healthily - of course I'm not. I'd go so far as to say I'm strongly in favour of it, in fact. Cooking from scratch (or in my case, having a boyfriend who does, anyway), eating lots of vegetables and fruit and grains and pulses and so on, drinking plenty of water, getting a little bit of fresh air and exercise every day - all good things. I bloody love avocado - but on toast, not in cake. I have no desire to be the kind of person who says things like "yah, I just feel so amazing since I gave up sugar." It makes me want to say, "I feel amazing now I've given up sounding like a tedious, insufferable wanker. Custard cream?"

I just feel that the whole 'eat clean' thing is geting a little bit fetishized, and I worry. Young girls need role models (the feminist line about "I cannot be what I cannot see" is frightening in its accuracy) and will find them online - on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest. If all they're seeing is incredibly thin women banging on about the evils of dairy, giving up sugar forever-and-ever-amen and baking with vegetables, then, well, I'm scared for them. I want to claim back some normality and say, "it's OK if you don't know the difference between spirulina and a spiralizer. I had to look it up."

Plus, it's easy to source almond milk and coconut yoghurt and white chia seeds if you're a full-time food writer/part-time celebrity and live in a city - a) you can afford it, and b) there's probably a branch of Whole Foods a stone's throw from your front door. It's not so easy to do if you live in a small town in the middle of arsing nowhere. I spent an entire morning trying to find white chia seeds in Horsham, and despite the achingly middle-class population of this town, I couldn't.

I have been down the calorie-counting, obsessive not-eating route, and the overarching memory I have of being sixteen and unhealthily skinny (though I didn't know it at the time) is that it's really fucking boring. It is so dull to constantly be doing the calorie maths, to be denying yourself tiny bits of pleasure just because you want to be bony instead of healthy. And what kind of a goal is that anyway? The goal of someone who's slightly tangled in the head, that's what. It's exhausting to maintain and it makes you rather hard work to be around. Take it from someone whose mother orders a salad every time she goes out for lunch or dinner - I don't think she's eaten a potato for over a decade.

These days, I've probably gone too far the other way - my "fuck it, who cares?" days far outnumber the days where I'm "good" (but again, what does being "good" mean? It's not like there's a reward scheme where you can collect prizes for managing to get your 5-a-day for 10 days straight) - but at least now I exercise regularly. When you know you can knock off about 400 calories by going for a good run, you start to become quite relaxed about shovelling a hearty helping of risotto into your face afterwards.

There are so many moments in life that involve food, and it's a shame to choose to miss out on them. The decadence of ordering pizza to a hotel room and eating it in bed, for example. A cold beer at the end of a day in a stuffy office. A roast dinner with all the trimmings, plus crumble and custard for pudding (feeling stuffed just thinking about it, to be honest). Champagne to toast good news. Smoked salmon because it's never not a good idea.

The last thing women need - and it is mainly women that this shit gets aimed at - is another thing to spend money on and feel guilty about. Let's stop giving ourselves a hard time, and just try to inhabit something like "normal".