I’ve been scribbling frantically about all the media I have consumed, but haven’t been keeping up with actually posting the reviews. So, buckle up - this is going to be a long one!
Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon:
I saw someone reading this on the train a while ago and thought it looked interesting, but then forgot about it. Then, when I was selecting the panels I wanted to attend at the upcoming Chipping Norton Literary Festival, I spotted the author of this book, and it prompted me to buy a copy. Bryony Gordon is a newspaper columnist, who also suffers from OCD, and this book is the story of her battle with mental health problems.
The prologue made me cheer even as it enraged me - the latter because of the appalling stories of suffering it told, the former because the author has chosen to highlight those stories and also tell her own. It spoke to me because I suffer from depression, anxiety and a binge-eating disorder. I’m very lucky because not of them are particularly severe, though they do, of course, impact on my life in detrimental ways.
Much like Bryony, I have suffered to varying degrees for twenty years, and only really got proper help last year. Once I realised I needed it, it took me two years to persuade my doctor to refer me for therapy for my eating disorder. He said it could only be offered on the NHS if I was a danger to myself or others, and it took some doing for me to convince him that my eating habits (in combination with my diabetes) were a form of self-harm. So, I completely related to Bryony’s frustration at the lack of access to help for those who need it.
Once she gets into her own story, she perhaps over-emphasises her childhood privilege (there’s a big sense of middle class guilt - why should I have the right to complain when my life is so great compared to other people’s - I can relate). The writing is intelligent, breezy, erudite, witty - but also quite apologetic. Even while she is railing against the societal attitude that mental health problems are something to be ashamed of and not discussed in polite company, Bryony demonstrates just how ingrained those attitudes are in her downplaying of her experiences and her asides wondering why anyone would want to read her story.
But a lot of that story is also pretty hard-hitting, and that’s where the book finds its message and its power.
“And this is the last time I remember life without darkness in my brain.”
This is at the age of twelve, and emphasises one of the worst things about mental illness. Even if you have access to professional help, and actually seek it out, there’s no quick fix. It’s a life-long struggle against something that can be managed and mitigated with a lot of time and effort, but which will never fully go away. This particularly resonated with me - that it takes a lot to acknowledge you need help, then it’s difficult to get it, and the amount of effort it takes to see improvement is offset by the despair of the inevitable relapses. It’s hard, it’s relentless, and there’s never going to be a point where you’re done fighting.
I found some of the book a bit too flippant and sensationalist, in a way that I felt undermined the message somewhat. However, I guess that’s likely what draws many people in to read it, and they are then exposed to the realities of OCD, which are horrific and terrifying, in a way society mostly ignores in throwaway references to tidy people being ‘a bit OCD’.
The book frequently felt like it was describing my own experiences, whilst at the same time making me feel very lucky that I have avoided many of the more extreme circumstances Bryony has found herself in. The stories she tells are both shocking and relatable, which makes for a very effective book overall, and must have been a tricky combination to achieve.
One of the things she does is highlight the fine, but very important distinction between making a choice to effect positive change (which involves admitting there’s a problem, seeking help, and doing all the hard work required to improve things) and ‘pulling yourself together’ (which is what naysayers think is all sufferers of mental illness need to do to get better).
The book ends with the story of Bryony setting up the website, Mental Health Mates, where people can find other sufferers in their area and meet up with them to go for walks and share their problems. This seems like a brilliant idea to me - beneficial in multiple ways - and I intend to go along to the next London walk I’m free for.
Some part of the books were painful, while others were uplifting. I didn’t enjoy all of it, but I think it puts its message across well, and in a way that will likely reach a wider audience than if the style were different. So, I’m very much looking forward to meeting Bryony - either at a London Mental Health Mates meet-up, or at least attending her panel in Chipping Norton.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lin
Someone at the writing course I went on back in December recommended this to me, and I was certainly intrigued to begin with. The prologue section, set during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s was compelling, and I liked the female protagonist, Ye Wenjie. The setting was strongly evoked, and I was invested in the character.
But then it jumped forty-plus years, switched to a male protagonist and started talking a lot more about science. There were several barriers to my enjoyment and comprehension of this book - the setting, history, culture, subject matter, and names are all completely unfamiliar to me, as I know very little about China and understand very little about particle physics. I persevered for a bit, though, because I do understand human emotion, and the motivations of the characters carried me through to a certain extent.
The Wang Miao entered the virtual reality game for the first time, and all bets were off. After that, it started to rely too heavily on technical aspects of the story, in a fantastical sphere that was even further outside my comprehension, and it just all got too much. I had planned to at least try and make it through to the end of the first book, but that wouldn’t have provided a conclusion because it’s the first in a trilogy, so I eventually decided to give up and move on to something else.
Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger:
This is the fourth and last Finishing School book, and it took me a little while to get into it. Several of my favourite characters either weren’t in it at all, had only very small parts, or were changed in ways I wasn’t keen on. I persevered because I knew it was the last in the series, and I’m glad I did, because it really picked up in the second half.
The climax where Sophronia takes on the bad guys, who have commandeered the airship that houses the school, was great. It was pacy and exciting (though I did feel the constraints of the Victorian sensibilities of the characters slowed down the action a little in places), there were brilliant revelations about characters and situations that brought significance to a lot of things from earlier in the series, and everything was brought to a very satisfactory conclusion.
I liked the fact that the epilogue gave a brief synopsis of what happened to the main characters afterwards. It gave a sense of closure to the series, which is rare in books, where publishers often want to leave things open for new volumes. I was glad everyone got a proper ending, and I very much enjoyed this series overall.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard:
This is my all-time favourite play, so I was very excited when I heard it was getting a run at The Old Vic, with Daniel Radcliffe in one of the title parts. So much so, that I booked three sets of tickets, and have now seen the play twice in the space of eight days (the third trip to take place on 7 April, after a nice little gap).
The reviews I’ve read seem to like damning Daniel Radcliffe with faint praise, talking about how his lack of distinction as an actor allows him to be slotted into any play without risking damaging the fabric. I feel this is quite unfair. R&GAD is a difficult play to learn and perform well, and I think Radcliffe is extremely well-suited to the part he has been given. The reviews also mostly say that Joshua Maguire dominates in the other title part, which is true, but then he’s supposed to.
In fact, at one point, Maguire complains that Radcliffe never says anything original, and Radcliffe’s reply is:
“It must be your dominant personality. I’m only good in support.”
And I think he is very good in that support. Plus, I don’t think there’s any shame in taking a part you’re suited to, or in allowing a lesser-known actor to take a more flamboyant part.
Overall, I enjoyed the play both times. It has some really funny lines, that make me laugh every time, but it’s also desperately sad, and I think repeat viewings are allowing me to appreciate the layers of significance and foreshadowing that much more. One of my companions on Saturday asked me to explain the play afterwards, and this is what I came up with:
“It’s about the futility of the innate human desire to comprehend their purpose. Therefore, in wanting to understand the play, and failing to do so, you have managed to embody its purpose, and provide an extra layer to its meaning.”
I have no idea if this is true, but it felt suitably pretentious!
I would say this production is not as good as the one I saw four times at the Haymarket a few years ago, but I value any opportunity to see this play on stage, and I have very few complaints to make. The whole cast is committed, the staging is excellent, and it makes me both laugh and cry. What more could you want?
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Mischief Theatre:
Sunday night saw us enjoying this very silly play at the Criterion, which is a lovely little theatre. We went to see The Play That Goes Wrong, by the same company, a while ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I had high hopes for this. It’s a very different proposition, as the calamities that befall the characters are part of the plot, rather than breaking the fourth wall. It was pretty amusing overall - not all the humour was exactly to my taste, but I didn’t actively object to any of it, and it was intermittently very funny. There was a lot of language humour, which I generally appreciated, and some very effective physical comedy, though some of the individual jokes went on a bit too long and got a bit repetitive.
There was some very enthusiastic and impressive singing, and the staging was great, adding quite a lot to my enjoyment of the play. The entire cast were very good, and gave it their all, which must be quite exhausting, considering how much running about, falling down, and shouting is involved.
Most of my companions laughed a lot more, and more uproariously, than I did, but I had fun overall, and was glad I went.
Beauty and the Beast (live action version):
My final review for this week is the live action film version of Beauty and the Beast, which I went to see at a sold-out showing in Bognor Regis yesterday morning. Every time I saw the trailer, I changed my mind about whether or not I wanted to see this, but I’m generally glad I did.
It was lavish and really beautiful, maintaining the emotion and adding to the spectacle of the animated version, but with some interesting differences. I didn’t think these differences were enough to make it much more than just a translation of the original into a new format, and some of them didn’t really work for me, but the film largely swept me along and kept me entertained.
I’ve heard some criticism of Emma Watson’s singing, in that it’s obviously auto-tuned, but I didn’t pick up on that at all, and I thought she did an excellent job with the part. She was convincing as Belle, and quite pro-active and strong in the role, which was good. There are, of course, the age-old issues with the development of a relationship based initially on abuse and imprisonment but, setting those aside, I enjoyed Belle and the Beast finding common ground through books, and gradually growing closer before being separated.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the gay characters - I’m not going to go into that in detail. Suffice it to say, I applaud the inclusion, but I was unimpressed by the execution. It’s a start, but I think Disney still has a long way to go in their attempts at diverse representation.
I wasn’t sure the live action would work, but it did. I thought I might be bored, but I wasn’t. I feared the film might leave me cold, but it didn’t. I don’t think it deserves quite such unqualified praise as it’s been receiving in some quarters, but it’s well-made, and both a faithful and effective adaptation of the original.