If Beale Street Could Talk – 7 Days of Books

“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

For day two I wanted to share my favourite book that I have read thus far this year, as well as a new favourite author. Though I had read from James Baldwin before, the seminal If Beale Street Could Talk solidified my love of his prose.

The novel is essentially a love story focused on Tish and Fonny, a young, unmarried black couple who are about to have a baby. Told from Tish’s perspective, the story follows her and her family’s attempt to prove Fonny’s innocence after he is wrongly accused of rape and imprisoned.

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For anyone familiar with Baldwin, it will come as no surprise that the novel deals with race and the discrimination black people faced in the early 1970s (arguably today as well). For anyone unacquainted with Baldwin, I would highly recommend the documentary/visual essay I Am Not Your Negro, which has little to do with Beale St other than overlapping themes and ideas, but through the film you can see how accurately and eloquently Baldwin is able to discuss these issues, as well as highlighting what an incredible man he was.

But this book is more than a condemnation on anti-blackness. It is more than it’s bleak premise indicates. It is full of life, each character so beautifully believable, so determined and strong and vulnerable. It is full of hope, hope in community, hope in family, hope in love. At times the language is brutal, but ultimately it is an optimistic novel, in spite of it all.

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Crow – 7 Days of Books

“Black was the heart
Black the liver, black the lungs
Unable to suck in light”

This week I was tagged by my friend on Facebook to share seven books over seven days that I love. I rarely use Facebook these days (I’m not that great with social media), but it seemed like a cute little challenge so I thought I would share my picks on here.

As today is National Poetry Day, I thought it fitting to begin with a poetry collection I recently read and loved – Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.

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The collection follows the character of ‘Crow’, an anthropomorphised animal who displays different qualities depending on the individual poem, but who is, for the most part, a grotesque being. Written by Hughes as a way to deal with the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath in 1963 and the suicide of his partner Assia Wevill in 1969, the collection is an amalgamation of his grief, with Crow serving as its personification.

Having lost both of my Grandparents last year, it was not hard to identify with the grief present in the poems. It is brutally raw and ugly, angry and depressed, and as such, is one of the best depictions of grief I have ever encountered. I recently read Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers, which is a narrative crafted around the premise of Crow, and whilst it too is a book filled with loss, it did not grab me in the same way.

Sometimes we read books at exactly the right moment in our lives – had I read this two years ago, I doubt it would have left the same impression. But I was ready for Crow, and the horrid, twisted thing gave me some catharsis.

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A Few First Impressions

I realised I am just at the beginning of quite a few different things, and thought it might be interesting to share my initial thoughts on them. I’ve not consumed enough to give a fully informed review, but you know what they say about first impressions – they tend to stick.

Though inevitably I’ll contradict myself later, after having written this post, when I say my opinion has changed. But that isn’t as catchy a saying – ‘first impressions stick, but also sometimes they won’t because things change, or perhaps you were stupid to decide something is absolute after only an initial impression because sometimes things take time‘.

Anyway, here are my (non-concrete) thoughts on stuff. First up, some skincare.

When I re-ordered my beloved Clinique cleanser, it arrived with a deluxe sample size of the Moisture Surge 72-Hour Auto-replenishing Hydrator – which is a very long-winded way to say ‘moisturiser‘. As I am trying to use up the beauty products that I have instead of constantly buying new products, when I ran out of my evening Boots Botanics Face Oil, I decided to replace it in my routine with this Clinique mouthful. The two are not the same, one is obviously an oil, which I tend to prefer at night as I find oils more moisturising and specifically rosehip oils good for acne scarring. And the other is a gel-cream, not something I tend to opt for even in the day, generally finding that gels do not give me the level of hydration I can get from a cream or oil. But, the lengthy name got me, with its promise of 72 hours worth of hydration. Plus, it was free, so, why not?

I’ve used it three times now, twice at night and once in the morning, just to work out where it fits best in my routine. I can’t say I have noticed a huge difference in my skin, but that isn’t surprising considering I have only just started to use it. I do have a few dry patches on my face at the moment and it does seem to have helped somewhat with softening them – though they are still there. It seems to layer well over the top of both my morning and evening serums, feels nice and lightweight, and it wore well underneath my makeup today as well. So, first impressions are not bad, I will keep using it, but my gut instinct tells me I’ll be back to oils once I’ve finished because I am a creature of habit.

On my Mum’s recommendation, I started watching True Detective Season 3, which follows the disappearance of two children in the 1980s being recalled by a detective suffering from memory loss in his old age. I enjoyed the first season of this anthology series by Nic Pizzolatto but thought the second was an incredibly dull parody of itself, so I was unsure about starting the third season, worried it would be more of the same. And I have to say, two episodes in, it does share some similarities to the first, but personally, I’m finding it as dull as the second. I’m unsure if I’m struggling with it because I’m simply not in the mood to watch a series with a heavier tone right now, or whether I am just no longer interested in the stories Pizzolatto writes. These are slow-paced series, dealing with serious crimes, with a saturated colour palette (that is how you know a show means serious business) and with characters that mumble more than they actually talk. Perhaps if I had never seen the first season or even the recent adaptation of Sharp Objects which has a somewhat comparable mystery, I would feel more invested and interested in this series, but at the moment it feels like a less gripping rehash, and I’m just not that into it.

In an attempt to combat the sombre tone of True Detective, I decided I wanted something more light-hearted and watched the first episode of After Life, the newest comedy show from Ricky Gervais about a man who has stopped caring about social etiquette after the death of his wife. It was something I had not intended to watch, as I don’t tend to get on with Gervais’ humour as much as I once did, finding it quite repetitive, but I saw a lot of good reviews and thought I’d give it a go. I’m only one episode in and think my gut instinct was right on this one – I have never laughed less at a comedy. To give the show its dues, it does toe the line between drama and comedy, what with the themes around death, but it definitely inclines more to comedy and it just is not to my taste. A lot of the scenes felt constructed for a specific punch line, which takes away any feeling of spontaneity – and, yes, I realise something that is filmed and edited cannot be spontaneous, but any joke made has to feel organic and of the moment especially if it is situational. That is part of what made The Office so great, it felt improvised and real even though it wasn’t. In contrast, everything in After Life feels scripted and forced, even in the choice of certain shots. And this is an issue for a show that is supposed to be grounded in real life and the ugly emotions felt while grieving – if it feels fake and forced in the more flippant moments then I will never buy the more serious scenes. But hey, it is one episode, maybe it gets better. And as it is a series that can be binged in around three hours, perhaps I should give it a second chance.

I’ve just started reading two books, the first of which is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which is a multi-generational novel which starts with two Ghanaian sisters, one of whom marries a white colonizer and the other of whom gets sold into slavery. I believe each chapter follows a different member of the same family tree, so I have just finished each sister’s individual chapter and will now be moving on to a different character – one of their children perhaps. I liked both the chapters that I read, the contrast between the two and the way the interlinked was really interesting, and I have to say I am disappointed to not be following them for longer. I’m curious as to how I’ll get on with following multiple characters, it normally isn’t something I like or look for, but the first two chapters were beautifully written and incredibly powerful so I am eager to read on and see how it all connects by the end.

The other book I have started is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which is a retelling of The Iliad (I guess? I’m not good with Greek myths) and the myth of Achilles, who would’ve guessed it? I picked this up because Miller’s recent novel, Circe has been doing the rounds, and I saw it on offer in the Kindle store and thought I would start with her debut novel. I’m less than fifty pages in, but so far I really it. In terms of a retelling, it feels like everything I wanted The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood to be, in that it appears to actively be retelling and redefining the original tale – though it is worth mentioning I don’t know that much about The Iliad, so who knows. If it keeps on in the direction I think it is headed then I think I’ll love this novel, but obviously, anything could happen in the next three hundred pages, so I am cautiously hopeful.

Those are all of my first impressions, let’s see if they last.

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The Godfather – A Book Review

‘You’re ready‘ my mum said, proudly.
I was twelve years old, it was the weekend, and my mother had just deemed me worthy enough to introduce something of the utmost importance to her – The Godfather.

She pulled out the three VHS tape box set she owned, which contained the first two films, and put the first one in the tape player. We sat back, and I was introduced to Vito Andolini, a young Sicilian boy attending his father’s funeral – my mum’s edition was in chronological order, I didn’t realize until later that most people heard ‘I believe in America‘ first, and not an Italian brass band interrupted by gunfire – and I was hooked.

It is difficult to think of any other film that has had quite the same impact for me, it has always felt incredibly personal (cue Sonny quote, ‘he’s taking it very personal!‘) because my mum passed it on to me, a film she loved and admired and wanted to share with me, even when I was technically too young to watch it, because she respected me enough as a person to believe I was mature enough to understand it, and love and admire it too. It is such a beloved film by us both that we even went on a sort of pilgrimage to Sicily, revelling in the many references to it whilst there, such as the score drifting down the street as we walked, restaurants with signs that say ‘eat the fishes, don’t sleep with them!‘. Heck, I even went there on my own last year and took a Godfather location tour on my birthday! We’re in deep.

So naturally I have always wanted to read the source material, a novel by Mario Puzo. I was intrigued about characters’ inner workings that couldn’t quite be captured on-screen, fascinated by what must be a landmark piece of literature because it created a landmark film. So I finally set aside time to read it, ready to sing its praises once finished.

Well, I finished it. And I’m not full of praises.

But let’s start at the beginning. For the uninitiated, The Godfather – both book & film – is about the Corleone family, which, as well as being actual relations, also operate as a crime family. The head is Don Vito Corleone, a Sicilian American who grants his friends ‘favours’ and offers his enemies deals ‘they can’t refuse’. His youngest son, Michael, has nothing to do with the family business, and wants to keep it that way, but, to quote a different Brando film, just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled right back in. It is a mafia story from the perception of the mobsters (unusual at the time), where the violence is secondary to the characters and their motivations.

Unlike the film, the novel also follows the trials and tribulations of Johnny Fontane, a famous singer and wannabe actor. He appears very briefly at the start of the film to ask his godfather, Vito Corleone, a favour. In the novel, however, this just marks the beginning of an entire subplot about celebrities and ‘the movies’. He struggles with having lost his singing voice and fearing he is losing relevance. He reconnects with an old friend, a friend who now has a better voice than him but doesn’t care to utilise it, only wanting to drink himself to death. It is a sub-plot that goes nowhere, that adds nothing to the core story or characters, that interrupts the flow of the main story. It certainly doesn’t help either, that Fontane is one of the most unlikable characters. And in a book that follows Mafia hit-men, I think that is really saying something.

But Fontane’s isn’t the only subplot from the book that is missing from the film. When not following the Corleone clan, we also follow, on occasion, Lucy Mancini. She is another character who appears only momentarily at the beginning of the film as the bridesmaid that Sonny sleeps with. And again, that appearance is still in the novel, in graphic detail, but so are their other liaisons, where it is discussed, in detail, that Sonny has a huge penis. This small detail is repeated over, and over, and over again to the point where I honestly think Puzo thought that having a big schlong constitutes as some kind of character trait. It doesn’t. But Lucy’s arc isn’t only confined to Sonny and his massive dick, oh no, she gets an entire arc dedicated to her vagina. Yes, you read that right. And I have to say, it’s where Puzo really lost me as a writer.

Before I go on a long rant here about the terrible treatment of women in this novel, I want to preface it by saying that I had literally zero expectations going into this. I’ve seen the films, I know Mama Corleone barely even gets a name, I know Connie exists solely for the plot, I know Kay exists mainly for exposition purposes – I know women have next to no role in this story. I didn’t start reading it expecting some great feminist text, I knew hardly any female characters would be named, I knew they would fall into stereotypes, and I knew we would barely hear or see them. I didn’t even expect the minimum that I would have of any other piece of fiction and still, I was disappointed.

Michael falls in love with Apollonia the instant he sees her (as in the film), and his response to that emotion? That he wants to literally possess her. Connie Corleone constantly calls her adopted brother Tom Hagen seeking consolation, advice and help whenever she is physically attacked by her husband, and his response? How much her moaning annoys him. The introduction we get to Fontane is him beating up his wife. And her reaction? Laughter. She laughs because he isn’t ‘manly’ enough to beat her well. Yeah, try to ruminate on that. And honestly, a lot of the really sexist crap comes from Fontane’s plot. And while the above examples are not great in their depiction and view of the female characters, it is easy to argue that these instances exist to highlight the toxic ways in which these men think and act. They are terrible people, it is expected that they will do and say terrible things. And though uncomfortable to read, doesn’t necessarily point to the author’s views – although we rarely see the point of view of these women, and when we do, they are heavily stereotyped and still steeped in sexism. It became hard to see this as Puzo’s intent, and more his own inability to write female characters. And nothing highlights this more than the one women he focuses on the most. Enter Lucy Mancini and the vagina plot.

You see, poor Lucy has always had a loose vagina. She doesn’t appear to have any health-related issues to this, apart from perhaps mental – which is never fully explored – instead this is a big issue, and only an issue, because men don’t get as much pleasure when they have sex with her. There is no mention of how good sex is for her, whether she gets on just fine, only that it is a problem for men. Enter Sonny with his colossal cock, ‘the perfect fit’ for Lucy, and we get to read pages and pages about how great his genitalia is. But then, when she can’t sleep with him anymore she shacks up with a doctor who tells her, moments after sleeping with her for the first time, that ‘hey, there is this great operation that’ll tighten you up!‘ Yippee! And, of course, she agrees to it immediately. She doesn’t ask any questions related to possible side effects. No probing about how the procedure works. No second opinion. Just straight to, ‘yep, sign me up for invasive surgery please!

The worst thing about this sub-plot isn’t even just the poor treatment of this character, but rather that this tangent has absolutely no impact on the actual plot. Ok, maybe ‘the worst thing’ is a poor choice of words, because absolutely nothing I have ever read is worse than the vagina plot, but if it has to be in there (and it doesn’t) at least try to pretend that it has some relevance. It doesn’t even intersect with Fredo Corleone and the Las Vegas plot, despite taking place at the same casino Fredo works in. Take out Lucy Mancini and the book doesn’t suffer, in fact, it greatly improves. I would rather female characters are not included in stories at all if they will just be relegated to a literal plot about their ability or inability to please men. That is what I expected from this book, poorly written but barely-there women. I can’t believe this is what I got.

The truly frustrating thing – and again, I am exaggerating, because nothing has ever been more frustrating than the vagina plot – is that I was enjoying the book until it showed up. Sure Fontane was annoying and I could have done without him, and yes, there was still plenty to roll my eyes at. But I find Michael’s story engrossing and compelling, and it had me gripped. Even though I know each plot point. Even though I saw each twist coming. I even got a little teary-eyed part way through when the ‘toll booth incident’ occurs (trying to keep relatively spoiler-free, vaginas aside). If the novel just followed the Corleones, I would have regarded this book a lot higher than I do. I would have still struggled with the portrayal of women, and I would have still considered it a piece of pulp fiction, but it would have been enjoyable pulp. Unfortunately though, the novel doesn’t just follow the Corleones, and it greatly suffers for it.

At least the film got it right.

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Five Favourite Things from February

I thought I’d do a round-up of a few things (books, film, beauty, etc.) that I discovered and loved during the last month.

My favourite book that I read last month was If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, which is about a young black couple falling in love and their struggles when one of them is wrongfully imprisoned. This is so beautifully written, it weaves back and forth in time, from character to character but I never felt lost in the narrative. The characters are well realised and themes handled delicately, and powerfully. Like most of Baldwin’s work, the issues surrounding racial inequality are unfortunately just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s, it does not feel dated, though it absolutely should. He is fast becoming one of my favourite writers, I had previously read Giovanni’s Room, and whilst I enjoyed the prose, the story and characters did not stick with me in the way they have in If Beale Street Could Talk. I definitely need to start working my way through his back catalogue.

Somewhat related to fiction, my favourite Youtube video of the month was a video Matthew Sciarappa made on poetry, and why you absolutely can read and understand it. He made some brilliant and encouraging points that I think really need to be made about poetry, a written form that is often seen as something only ‘intellectuals’ can enjoy and broke down that very idea. It’s a great and emboldening video, which I hope has gotten a few people to give the art form a go.

February was a pretty film heavy month for me, as I tried to watch as many of the Oscar-nominated films I could before this year’s ceremony, but despite having watched twelve films – which is more time-consuming than you might imagine – I found most of them kind of disappointing. At best, some of them were just enjoyable films, without much to note, at worst, they were Bohemian Rhapsody (seriously why is this film so adored? Is it just because of the soundtrack? Is it because of Malek? Is it because we all wish we could have been at Live Aid?) But thankfully, there were a couple that I absolutely adored.

The first of which is First Reformed, which is about a Reverend who begins to grapple with his own spirituality and past while trying to counsel a radicalized environmentalist parishioner. It is a film about guilt, grief and the many causes and forms it takes and how we deal with complacency in the face of large issues. It is what I would describe as a ‘quiet’ film, it moves slowly but steadily and is more of a character study than a plot-heavy film. That said, I’d really advise not watching a trailer for this as it gives a bit too much away – I went in blind, and I’m so glad that I did because by the time the final act kicked in I was genuinely on the edge of my seat, simultaneously feeling like I had no idea what was coming but also an intense dread that I did. This film is masterful, everything from the way it is shot, the script and the performance from Ethan Hawke; is so well done, I don’t think it is a stretch to call it Paul Schrader’s magnum opus. Think of it as Taxi Driver for modern times – which is to say, if you didn’t get along with Taxi Driver, you probably won’t like this. It isn’t a film for everyone, I think the ending especially will leave some feeling unsatisfied, but for me, the whole film was damn near perfection and an instant favourite.

The second film is The Favourite, a period piece about two women’s rivalry for power and favour from Queen Anne. I’m sure I don’t need to go too much into this, we’ve all heard about it, and if we weren’t all completely besotted with Olivia Coleman before the Oscars, we are now. I loved how darkly funny and odd and tragic this film is, but again, not a film for everyone. I’m genuinely surprised that most of the people who I know who have watched this film didn’t think much of it. I don’t know if it’s because of the ending that it’s throwing people off or people were expecting something… different? Funnier, maybe? I don’t know, it was everything I expected and wanted and more, the only real criticism I have is that the score was too repetitive and began to get on my nerves after a while, but that is just me being picky.

Honourable mention goes to At Eternity’s Gate for containing one of my favourite performances of all time in Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. He was robbed of an Oscar, that’s all I’ll say on that.

Finally, a beauty favourite of the month was the Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm. This isn’t actually new to me, but I ran out of it in February and replaced it with a sample I had of the Fresh Soy Face Cleanser, which I immediately regretted once a string of painful spots appeared on my chin. I swiftly placed an order to replace my Clinique balm and have been happy ever since. To compare the two (and they are very different products), the Fresh cleanser had more of a gel texture, was difficult to apply and felt more drying in contrast to the Clinique, which turns into more of an oily texture when applied, and never leaves my skin feeling stripped. And it doesn’t break me out. I was a fool to stray away, and I won’t be making that mistake again!

So those are my five favourite things from February, hopefully I’ll figure out a way to tone down the wall of text by next month!

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