Is Instagram a force for good?

Image: Pinterest

Huddled in the dark, wrapped in my duvet cocoon, I used to spend my evenings in bed scrolling through Instagram. I would obsess over people I knew, people I didn’t know and form goals for the person I wanted to be, based on a snapshot of someone’s life. Simultaneously, I was aware that nothing on Instagram was the reality of peoples’ lives, but at the same time I used it to make comparisons about my own life and what I had achieved in that day.

Instagram works for some people, but it never quite worked for me. In all aspects of my life, I have the bad trait of comparing myself to others. Instagram, the platform that likes to sugar coat the daily lives of others around us, and the celebrities we ideolise, was thus, never a good use of my time. However, it took several years for me to realise that.

I used to love Instagram for being able to see parts of the world I haven’t yet explored; through travel accounts and immersive photography platforms. I also used to love it for cooking inspiration, art and fashion. Despite all its many uses, I have had to abandon it to prevent the comparisons I would always make – between their lives and my own. Comparison for me, has never helped me to achieve good mental health.

Additionally, in hindsight, I believe there is something dangerous about the platform. Either consciously, or subconsciously, it encourages us to boast about our lives, our clothes, our wealth and our fortune, whilst others can be left feeling as if they do not fit in with the culture it perpetuates. The more you have, it seems, the more you can post. Instagram and its culture of fostering “influencers,” bloggers and celebrities, pays homage to the tide of modern capitalism’s dream. Sponsored posts by those which we are infatuated by; bear the remnants of global capitalism and its longstanding legacy. We are encouraged to want and to buy.

But moreover, we are always encouraged to do things. To be constantly around people and then to boast about it. Instagram can be used as a platform to encourage certain conversations; about mental health, the environment and period poverty are to name just a few. But I feel that it is selective about the conversations it gives space to. It doesn’t talk about the social stigma that is still attached to loneliness, it is still a foreign social media phenomena to like being alone with yourself and to engage in simple things. It doesn’t allow for a simple, fulfilling life, this is something it will never be able to perpetuate.

It was a platform that I knew was not good for me in some ways, but one which I still used, partly because I felt compelled to. Everyone else uses it without a problem (or so it seems). I remember telling some people I had deleted it and them seeming genuinely shocked as they echoed, “but why” to my response. Well, this is exactly why.

I’m not saying this is what everyone should do – but it is something that has worked for me. I now spend most of my evenings huddled in bed with a book, which offers little room for me to form toxic, idealistic comparisons. But it is a way in which I can switch off from the real world, the blue screens and picture perfect lives of people I barely know.

Social media can be irrevocably useful and a tool for inspiration and connectivity. But it can also be a toxic one, showcasing picture perfect lives and the imaginary reality of daily lives which do not match up to our own.

Book Review: Beartown – the quietly unassuming novel

Image: Pixabay

For a long time, I haven’t been so taken away by a book. I am a sucker for reading books I know are good due to their reputation, but I decided to read a book which hasn’t had the grand reception of other leading titles.

I was quite blown away by the premise and central message behind this book, which came as a reminder to myself to branch out and read lesser known titles. For once – this book has warranted an entire post by itself!

Beartown revolves around its surroundings – the geography and nature of the small, isolated hockey town, nestled in the icy depths of a Swedish forest, forms an essential part of the novel. The story is narrated through its various inhabitants, each paragraph takes on the perspective of a different character. At first, I found this format quite hard to keep track of but as the novel wore on and I got more familiar with the characters, I came to appreciate it more. The structure of the narration fits in with the centrality of community in Beartown and how nobody in the town has secrets or can live in complete isolation. They are all, in some way, bound to each other in some relation.

Hockey has central importance – at first, it is outlined as the running economic force behind the entire town. Due to its isolation and harsh climate, Beartown has little else to offer economically – the hockey industry is its saving grace. In some ways, it is a complete necessity. However, hockey also becomes the reason for its downfall. Hockey and community become completely intertwined in the novel, as “community” is the binding force behind the residents in Beartown – nobody would do anything to break that force – even for social justice to flourish.

The novel hints at the idea of how a community force can be potentially disruptive, even dangerous, when a sudden and unexpected, brutal crime takes place, perpetrated by a member of the town’s prized hockey team. Because everyone is intertwined and dependent on hockey to serve and maintain the community, the players, the managers and the investors all try to hide what happened. The lines between justice and injustice get blurred and members seem to be blinded by the actuality of what is going on around them. Community, rather than justice, is the force that is preserved.

“But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.

Not only is this crime ignored by most, but residents in their defense of their humble “community” appear to be in the dark about other related social problems which feature heavily in the novel. Told through a range of character perspectives; the novel points to the issues of teenage mental health, rape culture and alcoholism – and how they can become so prevalent in small, rural communities. It feels like the novel is trying to make a critique of the concept of “community” and all the glamour and perfection which was presented at the beginning. At first, the community seemed humble, full of friendship, love and commitment. But as the novel unravels it is presented to the reader that it is all an image, a facade for what is simmering underneath.

“Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

A small town in rural Sweden, nestled between a vast and beautiful forest, at a glance seems idyllic, even desirable for most of us who live in busy towns. We tend to look at small town communities in wonder. However, this novel pays homage to the idea that nothing is ever perfect or what it seems. The grass is always greener in our imagination.

As the novel draws to a close, a small sense of justice and re-evaluation is gained by some residents of the town. Some are beginning to question the nature of their community and realise that things have to change. But others simply move away from the town and do not address the problems they helped to create.

I found this novel to have a very profound and relevant message, presented in a very complex way. It deals with some central social issues such as homophobia, alcoholism, rape culture and loneliness – but in such a subtle way that the reader becomes invested in the people rather than the big issues at large. The criticism is subtle but prolific, and one that is entirely relevant.

4/5

I hope this post does not read too cryptically, but it is hard to write about this novel without giving the main event away!

August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5

14/10/19: A State of Distraction

Image: Queen at the State opening of Parliment (Monday October 14, 2019) SkyNews.

Like most people in the country, I hold my breath each morning as I enjoy the brief silence before I expose myself to the morning’s news. Alas, the exposure has to be done in an attempt to understand the path of British politics as it changes from one minute to the next.

Standing at on the door of Number 10 during his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnston promised the country that he would restore their faith in democracy with, “no ifs no buts” and deliver Brexit by October 31st. In the Queen’s speech, Johnson seemed to be promulgating a mixture of election style pledges on boosting the regulation of crime and punishment, false promises of education improvements and of course, more policemen on the street. The current climate crisis was merely accounted for, as critiqued by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton and Pavillion, the Queen’s Speech contained just six words dedicated to the issue.

Brexit related issues in the Queen’s speech include confirmed heightened restrictions on freedom of movement and a proposed introduction of a points-based immigration system from 2021. Additional Brexit promises also included a new Environment Bill to reduce the use of plastics and encourage biodiversity and the proposition to raise the national living wage to £10.50. But remember, all these policies have to be taken with a sack (not pinch) of salt, as Johnson has no parliamentary majority but is instead, high bent on churning out a list of propagandist policies that will vote him into Number 10 in the next following election.

It is highly likely that none of his pledges to make Britain, ‘the greatest place on Earth‘ will ever be enacted due to their failure to be passed by the House of Commons in the following few days (thanks to Johnson’s majority of -43).

But again, there was hardly any concrete information on the progress of leaving the EU, instead the issue seems to be brushed aside in favor of hauling out what seems like election promises instead of addressing the current political moment.

In every interview Boris is keen to reassure UK Journalists that progress on Brexit is fine and dandy – but can never elude to anything more. As the days unravel at a seemingly quicker pace, the public are endlessly left in the dark and with no further understanding of how the course of Brexit is going to play out. It seems the current Prime Minister is lost in his bubble of statecraft, with a sole desire of becoming Britain’s greatest orator – but not the beacon of democracy he so promised on the first day of his premiership.

The pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s arrival into parliament on this drizzly, October day seemed a somewhat perfect reflection of Boris Johnston’s government.

It is merely a governance of showy polemic, with little grounding or care for the future impact of policies which are being muddled through in a blurry haze. Speeches are often propagandist, but this one in particular proved to serve as a distraction from the looming realities of the Brexit deadline. Once more, we are still kept in the dark and it is unlikely to get brighter as the eve of Halloween remains on the horizon.

July in books

Image: On Chesil Beach (film adaptation, 2017)

Although two and a half books in one month is not a lot too most people – it is more than I have read for a while! Earlier on in the month I told myself I wanted to read more for pleasure – and I guess I have succeeded. Next month’s target will be three books – which should be more achievable as I will have finished my exams!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

The first book I chose to read this month was one of the most harrowing books I have read for a while. I feel in love with Atonement when I was studying A-Level literature and have always wanted to read more McEwan and this didn’t disappoint. I read the short novel in about two days and was at once taken back to the writing style which made me fall in love with literature. McEwan has such a rich palette for detail and makes every scene come alive. On Chesil Beach follows the account of a newly wed couple on their honeymoon evening. Flipping from their student days until the present, McEwan tells the story of their upsetting struggle. Subtle but innovative, the story is compelling but nonetheless devastating. A perspective not often covered in literature, but tackled with beauty and elegance, the reader can almost feel the tension prickling through the pages. 4/5

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016),

Considered to be the first fiction book written in response to Brexit, this book (and following series) follows a contemporary criticism of Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 vote. Written in the third person, in prose somewhat resembling poetic voice, it offers a stark criticism of the feeling of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Although being fiction, one cannot help but interpret Autumn as symbolic of Britain’s Brexit sentiment as a historic moment. Leaver or remainer, upon reading Autumn, readers should agree that it is a remarkable work of fiction based on a current, real life political event that everyone should read regardless of political persuasion. Autumn is a set of four books which include Spring, Summer and Winter. Each is a reflection of the moments following the Brexit vote. Stark, yet wonderfully written and reflective. (5/5)

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I cannot really write a review of this as I am only half way through, but I thought I would include a some thoughts anyway. As I was impressed by Chesil Beach, I thought I would continue the McEwan theme. Saturday is set in the post 9/11 age and offers a subtle reflection on British politics in the 2000s; the threat of nuclear war with Iran and urban life in modern London. As expected, McEwan intricately describes every nook and cranny of the life of the protagonist, the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne and his family. It is a novel set in one single Saturday, but the intricacy makes it feel like a lifetime. I am very much looking forward to reading more of it!