Friday, 23 January 2015

Ways in Which This Christmas Kicked Last Christmas' Ass

For me, 2014 really was a year that progressed from awful to awesome with alarming speed and efficiency. And in that vein, this Christmas really did kick last Christmas not only back into 2013, but right back into somewhere during the Dark Ages.

In a nutshell:

More people, less pressure.

In a slightly expanded nutshell:

Huge quantities of the right people, and some pressure which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and thrived under.

In a totally unnecessary and long-winded blog post…

I think Christmas really began in our flat at Uni on the 1st December, when I came back from my last “Analysing Television” seminar in my Christmas jumper and decided it was time to “Christmas up the kitchen”. I sat down with some paper and started making some snowflakes. Then came the Christmas music. Then after about an hour, our whole little odd family was sitting around the table making decorations and planning out how we’d celebrate the festive season in style.

We ended up—among other things such as an Australian-themed birthday party for a flatmate, for which I dressed as a Pavlova (don’t ask, there was much debate and it was what she wanted)—organising a Christmas dinner for the whole flat. Myself and one flatmate took charge, and with some help from the others we cooked a Christmas dinner for thirteen people using our only working hob ring (cheers, maintenance), a grill and two microwaves… as well as the hobs and grill, on one occasion, of the flat upstairs.

We did it! Secret Santa ensued, organised by a frazzled and stressed Yours Truly, and was a surprising success.

For all the fun in the flat, though, tensions ran a little high after living with strangers for twelve weeks and most of us couldn’t wait to get home. I flew back to Ireland on the 15th—after sleeping through my alarm and almost missing my bus in classic first-time-adult fashion—and there was a surprise waiting for me at the airport. One of my best friends from school was going to America the next day for the holidays so we thought we’d miss each other, or only get to chat for a few moments. So she came to meet me at the airport with my parents! It was a wonderful surmise… but to be honest, I’d have expected nothing less from her.

Om getting home, I slept. And slept. I slept for sixteen hours the first night and fourteen the second, with naps in between. Bliss.

And then it began. Two brothers, respective partners and parents home for the holiday. Dozens of relatives to  visit over three weeks. Tons of friends to catch up with from school and to miss from University. I also had some work to do, but the only sign of the Leaving Cert I saw were some discarded folders in the office with awful words like "Business Studies--ABQ" on them. How  disgusting. Last Christmas I was working toward the most important exam I'd take for a long time, but this holiday took place after about 75% of my coursework for the entire semester had already been handed in. I know it won't always be like this--which is why I intend to tak full advantage while it lasts--but I still maintain, hope and pray that no year will be as stressful as that of the Leaving Cert: academically and personally. If I that weren't the case then I don't think I could carry on. I think that being surrounded by the right people and growing up a bit, however, I could tackle any more stress a lot better next time round.

So essentially, my Christmas at home followed suit with the last three months in that it contained many more wonderful people than the year before, and life was a lot less stressful with less life-changing decisions to make and less to study for and panic about. 

One Christmas tradition in my house is to watch "The Muppets' Christmas Carol" every year. New family members are indoctrinated into this. You can read a wonderful review of that by my friend the blogger and amazing film buff, Eliott, here).

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Debate: Time Heals All

Does time really heal all wounds? I don’t know who the first person to say this was, but during my eighteen years on the planet which clearly make me an expert on life, I’ve both learned and decided it to be true.

And if you disagree, I get that, really I do. This is a phrase very much open to interpretation.

First of all, we need to look at what “time” is. Is it a day? Is it a year—six months—a decade? “Time” can only be defined, not even as the length of time before the morning you wake up and feel OK again, but as the length of time it takes for things begin to seem just a little better than they did the day before. You’ve got to look at the time it will take before you start to recover, and then the time that recovery will take.

Which brings me to my next question: what classifies as healing? There seems to be this impression that someone who goes through a trial of some sort is “healed” when they feel on top of the world once more.

This is unrealistic, and is simply not the case.

Four weeks ago my flatmate and I broke the “don’t drink and cook” rule and made—by which I mean defrosted and heated up—chicken nuggets after a night out. I can’t quite remember who moved what where, but I ended up burning my forearm on the baking tray. Because I had had a little to drink (and then a little more), I didn’t really think the burn was painful and didn’t bother running it under the tap. Mum, if you’re reading this, I KNOW.

So now, the burn has healed. It no longer hurts, and there’s no longer a peeling scab which by the way did not make the best accessory to my pretty Christmas Ball dress. But there’s still a pink mark on my arm. It hasn’t disappeared. I haven’t gone back in time and stopped it from happening. I can still remember it. It hasn’t faded into insignificance just yet.

Nor should it.

“Healing” doesn’t mean I never burned myself. It doesn’t mean I never made the stupid mistake. It doesn’t even mean that nobody can see it, that I’m not affected by it. It means that I’m no longer suffering and in pain, and it means that my arm has improved immensely since I burned myself. No more, no less.

Healing doesn’t mean everything goes back to the way it was before. It just means that after an unspecified amount of time, whatever has happened to you or however you felt won’t take over your life any more. You might miss someone less than you thought you would. You might get less sad or angry when you think of something. You might find a gap in your life is well on its way to being filled with people and moments and memories and places that make things… different. Better.

I’m afraid that’s all I can promise you.

Don’t ask for the moon when waiting for “time to heal all”. Just be assured that in its own way, it will. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Review: The Casual Vacancy

First published on, June 2014. Unedited. 

Last week, I read my first ever “new” book since the onslaught of the Leaving Cert. I’ve been so tired from studying in the past few months that I’ve only had the time to re-read, dipping back into old, comforting favourites.

I was so excited to sink my teeth into something new, so I got started with the Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling.

I must admit it was a bit of a summer love affair: I took the book everywhere with me, I fell asleep next to it, I woke up in the morning and opened it up again. I read it in three days straight. It had me totally hooked and if that’s not the sign of a good book, then I don’t know what is.

Blurb: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. 
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. 
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. 
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 
A big novel about a small town, 
The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.

In case you haven’t heard of it (where have you been? Even I’ve heard of it!), The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s first book to be written outside of the Harry Potter Series and its additional books.
Not much was given away by the title, but basically the book delves into the lives of various people and families from a small English town where the Parish Council is God and gossip and secrets are traded like currency.

For me, living in the Irish countryside, this was all very familiar indeed.

Rather than focusing on one or two main characters, the book offers glimpses into the lives of about a dozen people, yet somehow we get to know them all thoroughly through the little snapshots Rowling offers. It’s really fascinating to see how various people’s lives can intertwine and effect one another—or not, as the case may be.

In this way, it was very reminiscent of the work of Maeve Binchy—if you enjoyed such novels of hers as Evening Class or Circle of Friends, then The Casual Vacancy is probably for you.

However, the sheer number of characters mane the story a little hard to follow: I found I had to keep flicking back and reminding myself that “he’s her son” and “they work together” and so forth, but the best thing to do was just to relax and get on with reading the story—everyone became familiar soon enough.

The book is certainly not a bundle of laughs, if that’s what you’re looking for! It begins and ends with death 
and in between deals with issues such as addiction, bullying and poverty to name but a few. It also presents a negative view of family life and marriage with couples constantly involved in power struggles, or one person finding their partner is no longer the person they married. While at times, it felt like the author was almost trying to be controversial or shocking, it also serves to make the story very realistic and eye opening—imperfections are dealt with in total honesty. No character is idealised or given the “Hollywood treatment”, which I find I appreciate a bit more in my old age (!).

I found the four main teenagers in the book to be a little predictable: they obsess over the opposite sex, hate their parents, hate themselves… they practise and enjoy all of the things an adult these days might presume teenagers do. That being said, Rowling’s perception of youth wasn’t far wrong. Teenagers can be fairly predictable.

I think the thing that fascinated me the most, and probably the most uplifting feature of the story, was the huge effect Barry Fairbrother has (or had) on the lives of the people of Pagford. He is just a drop in the ocean, as it were, and the alarming ripple effect he has caused within the community is sadly only noticed after his death. We only meet him when he dies, but he seems to have been an extraordinary person and who has had a huge impact on the teenagers and adults we meet–often positive, occasionally negative.
That said, he is the exact opposite of this: he is totally ordinary. It really brings home the message that we don’t appreciate how important each and every seemingly insignificant person is in this world, often until it’s too late. I think we should all try to be a Barry Fairbrother, is that’s possible!

Overall, I’m not bursting to read this book again right away, but I’m not one to pretend a book isn’t amazing when it clearly is. I was addicted to this book and the story is really well written. All elements are tied together nicely, the plot is tight and the writing style is, as was expected, second to none. JK Rowling certainly hasn’t disappointed, nor would I have expected her to.

I was delighted to find that The Casual Vacancy is being made into a TV series in the next year or so! I think it’s a brilliant idea as I’d love to see all the characters brought to life onscreen, but feel that the story wouldn’t have held its own as a film. It appears that Sir Michael Gambon is to play the character of Howard Mollison—I can’t imagine him as such an unpleasant person (spoiler alert, we hate Howard!) and it seems like a desperate attempt to cling on to something Harry Potter, but of course the man is a great actor, a total chameleon, and will bring all his skill and charisma to the production.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. It’s the first I’ve ever written for the blog, and it’s been great fun. Let me know if you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on books, TV shows, films or even products!

Catherine Ann x

Review: Elizabeth Is Missing

First appeared, July 2014. Edited. 

How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?

A couple of years ago, my brother’s partner mentioned to me that someone she knew was writing a novel—as she’d been asked to help with the research. We were all very excited about it but it sort of faded into the back of everyone’s minds until earlier this year when it was published… and it’s now set to be hugely successful!
That someone was Emma Healey, just 29, and that book is now the acclaimed Elizabeth is Missing.

“Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shop and forgets why she went. Back home she finds the place horribly unrecognisable—just like she sometimes thinks her daughter Helen is a total stranger. But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it. Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about. Everyone, except Maud…”

I had some reservations about reviewing this, since I will probably end up meeting the author at some point—it would be rather embarrassing if I had something bad to say about it!

I needn’t have worried.

The book was another one of my three day love affairs. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I can see myself dipping into it many more times throughout my life.

I received a signed copy (from brother and partner) for my birthday with a thoughtful message from Emma herself (thanks!).

“Elizabeth is Missing” is essentially two stories in one book. The main story follows Maud, an elderly woman with dementia. However, there is also a series of flashbacks to Maud’s childhood as she simultaneously tries to solve two mysteries: The disappearance of her friend Elizabeth in the present day, and the disappearance of her older sister Sukey seventy years before.

I felt that as a teenager, I would find Maud’s character hard to relate to, but it was actually fairly natural. The vivid description of both Maud’s feelings and the way she was treated was easy to empathise with. Think of all those times you were a child and nobody listened to you or took you seriously! And we’ve all experienced memory loss in one way or another. Now, where was I?

The story was so scattered, confused and repetitive that it really did put me in the shoes of this poor old woman. I became so involved with Maud’s thoughts that when she forgot something, I did too. A pretty spooky experience!

The story that takes place in the past was from the point of view of Maud as a young girl—completely compos mentis—and was of huge benefit to the book as it had a very clear plotline I could follow from beginning to end, rather than spending all my time trying to pick up and weave together the loose threads of the main plot.

For me, the characters are the most important part of a story, and in “Elizabeth is Missing” they were described so clearly and so well that I could see them in front of me. We’re all told to “show not tell” and this was clearly followed to a T. I fell in love with Maud right away and she was so endeared to me that I wanted to shout out on her behalf when she wasn’t being listened to, or put my arm around her and give her a squeeze when she was confused, lost and upset.

Such vivid characters made the story all the more real to me, and such sympathy urged me on toward the end.

It was fascinating to learn how the mind makes connections. Every time Maud goes to the shop, all she can remember to buy are tinned peaches, until her cupboards at home are completely full of them. We later learn that they link back to her past. In the same way, she focuses on tiny objects and collects seemingly nonsensical items that all have meaning to her life in some way. This made the book a learning curve about dementia for me… but again, we all have small items with huge significance in our lives.

At the end of the book (no spoilers!), I felt I had an idea of what might have happened to Elizabeth. This, far from making things predictable, actually added to the story as I could tell why Maud was so confused and why those around her were so frustrated. Being a few minutes ahead of her really emphasised the way her thoughts dragged through treacle, struggling to keep up with the present while stuck so firmly in the past.

This is such a new concept—to me, anyway—that I’m afraid I can’t really do the “If you like x, you’ll love this”, but to be honest I recommend it to everyone.

If you know someone who has suffered from dementia, you should read this book.

If you have parents and grandparents, you should read this book.

If you’ve ever lost someone, you should read this book.

If you ever feel lost, or frustrated, or like nobody is listening to you, you should read this book.

I really loved it, and I hope you do too.

(PS... I gather this one is being made into a TV series, too. Hurrah!)