Kindness and Guilt

There’s a certain toxic behaviour that I see quite a lot of. Thankfully, this is very rare among the people in my life, but I see it a lot on television (and other fiction) and I know that my friends have trouble with people acting this way. What’s the behaviour I’m talking about? Well, it’s when somebody does something nice for somebody, but then uses that fact against the person later. Sometimes I feel like people actively do something “kind” because they want to make the person feel guilty due to whatever issues they’re failing to communicate properly (or because they do the so-called act of kindness because they want something in return).

In my opinion, if somebody does something nice for somebody and then later uses it against them, it’s no longer an act of kindness, it’s one cog in an act of manipulation. It’s the equivalent of baking somebody a cake… but it’s actually made of something they’re allergic to for a prank, or giving somebody a nice teddy bear… but it’s actually stuffed with cocaine and you’re giving it to them because you need to hide it, or buying somebody some nice clothes… but you intentionally bought them a size to small because you think the person is overweight and want them to lose weight. Yes, in isolation, the action might seem kind, but when you see the whole picture, you realise there was no kindness involved – only manipulation.

It’s always wrong to intentionally make somebody feel guilty. The only motivation you should have behind any act of kindness is to make the other person happy, because when you care about somebody, their happiness should be its own reward. I can understand doing something for someone because you hope it will improve your relationship with someone, that’s fine as far as “ulterior motives” go. It’s even fine if you’re doing something to make someone happy, but also partly thinking “wouldn’t it be nice if this encouraged them to do the same for me one day?” it’s natural to hope people will do nice things for you or that people will like you… but it becomes not okay when you start to expect people to reciprocate all of your actions of kindness.

Love and kindness are not an economy. You don’t pay someone with one act of kindness in exchange for something from them – yes, it might generally work out like that, but sometimes it won’t (which is okay) and keeping score and trying to coerce people is not “kind” by any means. If people are doing things for people and thinking about what they can get out of the person as a result of it, or hoping to make them feel guilty or anything like that, I think they seriously need to reassess the dynamics of the relationships in their life. Nobody appreciates this kind of behaviour.

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Could COVID-19 be a hoax?

I was out taking my evening walk the other day when I noticed that some local graffiti artists had made a statement over a COVID-19 information poster at the bus station. They had just written two words one was “HOAX” and the other was “LIES” and so I thought it would make an interesting blog post to explore whether or not COVID-19 could actually be a hoax.

I suppose I can see why some people think that it’s not real. After all, it’s a serious thing which has affected all our lives in a detrimental way and people are frustrated. It’s invisible, so we can only conceptualise the harm that it does, plus there are lots of people who have ignored all guidance and have seemingly had no consequences. Plus, there are plenty of people who don’t know anyone with COVID-19 and never had… it makes sense that it seems like a hoax, right?

Well, while I can understand why some people might think that way, it only takes a little bit of critical thinking to debunk it. Look at all the countries which are currently enforcing measures to deal with COVID-19… are they all in on the hoax? If so, who came up with the idea? To what end was this hoax invented? It would require some all-powerful person (or organisation) to be pulling the strings of all the world’s major powers and I feel as though that thought is so outlandish that it doesn’t need anyone to debunk it.

Furthermore, there are plenty of doctors and nurses who are very happy to verify that COVID-19 are real. I know a few and have spoken to them directly about it… why would they lie? Doctors and nurses would have no reason to spread misinformation. They’re primarily concerned with helping people and so you can safely trust anything which comes from them. Plus, it’s not really hard to find heart breaking accounts of people who have lost friends and family to COVID-19 just by looking around online. There are even a few people who thought it was a hoax and then changed their mind once they were struck down with it.

I almost feel like people who believe it is a hoax want it to be one, because the reality is quite horrible. Nonetheless, with a bit of analysis, it’s easy to see that the idea of COVID-19 being a hoax holds no weight whatsoever.

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

This children’s novel is written in a very clever style – the whole book takes the form of a diary which has been given to the titular Tracy Beaker so that she can record her thoughts and feelings to try and stop her from having any angry outbursts. It’s a very believable structure and gives us a very personal insight into Tracy’s mind. You really feel like you know her.

With that in mind, Tracy Beaker is a little girl living in an orphanage, which she calls “The Dumping Ground”. She’s disillusioned with the whole system after having gone through various foster families and deludes herself into thinking that her mother will one day come back for her. She talks about her life there, her relationships with the other children and, eventually, her desire to be adopted it after she meets an adult woman she quite likes.

It’s quite a short novel, but I thought it was so beautifully written. Tracy felt so real. I really wanted things to work out for her, because she’d had such a tough life. Though she acts out and puts on a tough front around people, she’s a very vulnerable child who struggles to deal with the feelings of rejection which followed her mother abandoning her.

At times Tracy jokes around and indulges the reader with her fantasies, which can be genuinely funny. Although it is all a little marred by the sadness of her life, particularly because she is usually silly or jokey when she’s trying to hide her feelings.

It’s a very emotional book from start to finish and a very rewarding read. You feel Tracy’s deep sadness throughout the book, but then when good things happen and she starts to feel genuinely happy, you feel it just as profoundly. I enjoyed every page and I came to the end looking forward to read future instalments in the series.

Rating: 9.3/10

Buy it here.

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Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

As a writer, I love thinking about the English language (and other languages too, but less so, since I can’t write or speak them) and so it was really interesting to read Mother Tongue, because it gave a full history of the English language and explained the various different things which had influenced it throughout its development.

As an example of all the wonderful things you can learn from this book, think about the word ‘okay’. I’m sure you probably say it every single day, but where does the word come from? Well, as it turns out, nobody quite knows for sure. There are several theories, including the possibility that it was the initials of somebody in America who had to sign off incoming shipments. That’s just one of many interpretations. The fact that we don’t have a solid answer is fascinating to me.

Shakespeare came up lots of times as well, primarily because he has made so many huge contributions to the English language. Obviously, there were several phrases and expressions which I knew came from Shakespeare, but I was very impressed by the full scale of his contributions. He was compared against other single authors who have been remembered ever since, but none of them even come close in terms of how much they’ve contributed.

Bryson also takes a look at swear words and how the level of offense caused by them is relative to history. There were periods of time when certain swear words of today were in common usage. He explains the various factors that make something become a “swear” and it perfectly illustrates just how flexible language is.

His approach to language, spelling and grammar is to treat it like an ever-evolving thing which isn’t set in stone – which, of course, is exactly what it is. He demonstrates that the English spoken and written in the past was essentially a completely different language to what we speak and write today. He also showed how certain words used to be spelled in completely unrecognisable ways to how they are spelled now, while other words remain intact. If you’re someone who feels bad about your spelling, you will hopefully be comforted by the fact that even today, major dictionaries disagree as to the spelling of certain words.

I think any writer will love reading this. Essentially, it helps you to get to know the tools that you use every single day. After each new chapter, I had a fact which I was eager to share with my house friend. It’s an entertaining book with a lot to teach. It helped improve not only my knowledge of the English language, but my appreciation too.

Rating: 9.1/10

Buy it here.

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Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup recounts the twelve years of his life in which he was forced into slavery in America. At times, it’s pretty horrible and difficult to read, but it’s important to read in order to get an idea of what life as a slave in America was actually like.

Through his book, he explains that he was living in the country as a free man, before being kidnapped and sold into slavery – a fate which befell countless numbers of innocent people. Not that it was any better to be born a slave. As a man who was married with children, it was obviously especially distressing for him to be separated from them with the thought that they wouldn’t know what had happened to him.

From then on, he describes his life as a slave. He explains the absolutely barbaric way in which he was treated (including horrible whippings) and how he was forbidden from ever mentioning the fact that he was a free man on pain of death. He also described the distressing things that happened to fellow slaves, like a mother being forcibly separated from her children. That was a particularly hard portion of the book to read.

What struck me as I read was that Northup writes in such a polite way. He never truly lashes out about the extremely inhumane things which were done to him. In some ways, this makes him come across as very endearing but I also imagine that he had to write it in this way in order to avoid discredited since this memoir was only published in 1853 and people who were pro-slavery would have been rampant. It’s sad that this may have been a necessity, but, either way, he has a very pleasant writing style.

The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I did occasionally find myself getting a little bored when reading about the day to day life of a slave, because it was a monotonous life. This didn’t happened too often and is certainly not a major issue. Overall, it’s a very powerful book which gives an insight into one of history’s biggest atrocities. Anybody in today’s world who believes that life wasn’t “that bad” for slaves should read this for a first hand perspective of what it was really like. For this reason, I recommend that everybody read as the important historical account that it is. It’s well written and covers a subject which must never be forgotten.

Rating: 8.7/10

Buy it here.

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The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

In my travels around the internet and popular culture, I often hear Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels talked about as if they were awful people – as if they were responsible for the monstrosities caused by the dictators in history who have committed atrocities in the name of communism. But every single ideology in existence, be it Christianity, feminism, Islam, capitalism or anything else has had atrocities committed in its name. Every belief system has its extremists and this is no reason to dismiss communism.

If you actually sit down to read The Communist Manifesto, you may find your opinion changing somewhat. It starts by making a critique of capitalism and it makes some statements which in retrospect seem rather prophetic, about the divide of wealth between rich and poor continuing to grow and grow, about the exponential growth of capitalism causing businesses grow to ridiculous and unsustainable levels and about the drain of resources which would result from this. You only have to look at the state of the world today to see that this is indeed what is happening.

Then, as an alternative to this, they suggest a system through which wealth is distributed evenly throughout society. This would help to stop people dying from poverty and would help to stop the endless draining of non-renewable resources in the name of growth. When you consider the enormous problems caused by climate change, this only becomes even more agreeable.

I didn’t really find myself disagreeing with anything that was said in The Communist Manifesto. In theory, it sounds almost like a utopia. An argument can certainly be made that such a thing is too idealistic and that the failing of various communist governments throughout history reflects this. Although when you read about the communism described in this manifesto, you realise that it is very different to anything which has been done in real life. I would argue that only the communist name has been used in reality. Whether or not it is realistic remains a question, but it becomes increasingly clear that uncontrolled capitalism is very bad for the health of the world at large. Marx and Engels foresaw this and made a strong argument for an alternative; an argument for which I have a lot of respect.

Rating: 8.5/10

Buy it here.

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s not easy to fit Her Fearful Symmetry into any pigeon holes, but to sum it up succinctly: twin sisters in America inherit the home of their estranged aunt who lives in London. The twins still live with their parents and move out to the UK in order to take their first steps into adulthood and independence. The twins make friends with their deceased aunt’s former lover and the man who lives in the flat above, whose life has been ruined by his severe OCD. On top of all that, their aunt haunts the flat as a ghost and becomes a sort of supernatural housemate to the pair. It might sound like a disjointed mess of contrasting ideas, but actually everything works together perfectly and creates a very believable world.

At the heart of the novel, you have the two twins, Julia and Valentina. As sisters and identical twins, they do everything together. They’ve shared their entire lives with one another and essentially see themselves as two halves of one whole. Their relationship was really fascinating to me and the way that it changed throughout the course of the novel was something that really kept me reading.

Elspeth, their deceased aunt, was another very interesting character. In some ways, Niffenegger’s approach to ghosts is one of the least frightening I’ve ever seen. It’s all written as if it’s something very ordinary. She’s a force within the flat she used to life in. She can move around, invisibly, within it and that’s it. At one point, she just watches an episode of Doctor Who with the twins. It’s all very light-hearted and almost seems at odds with the rest of the story, which is very grounded in reality. However, without wishing to spoil anything, I’ll say that this did change. By the end, I felt that this was probably the most disturbing ghost story I had ever read. A chill ran down my spine at one point, because what happened was just so indescribably creepy.

Ultimately, I felt that the book’s biggest strength was that it takes five very real characters, all of whom have detailed histories and are very well characterised, and then details the ways in which their lives intersect and the relationships which form between them. It’s very satisfying. Each person is the main character in their own narrative, the twins are adjusting to a new life in London. Elspeth is adapting to life as a ghost. Robert is coming to terms with Elspeth’s death. Martin (the man upstairs) is trying to cope with his OCD after his wife left him because it was too difficult for her. I was invested in all of them.

For a very grounded ghost story, filled with plenty of believable characters, this is definitely a book worth trying. Just be warned that it does get very distressing as it goes on.

Rating: 9.2/10

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Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

I’ve always been a fan of comics, both reading them and writing them. In fact, I’m still writing them into my adulthood. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud delves into the history of comics, explaining their origins and influences while also putting them forward as an artform as deserving of respect as any other. He does all this through a comic.

I found it all a very interesting read. Shamefully, I’d never truly thought about the origins of comics before, but I really enjoyed learning about them. Nicely, McCloud takes a very international approach to his comic, using examples from around the world and factoring in how they have all influenced the overall development of comics. It was nice to see specific examples that I recognised referenced throughout it.

Another aspect of it that I particularly enjoyed was the way in which it went into the actual mechanics of comics. He explained why certain things were done within comics and then went on to detail their impact on people and how different stylistic choices have been used to evoke different kinds of emotional responses. It was pretty fascinating stuff.

What was most impressive about Understanding Comics, though, was that it really made the most of the fact that it is a comic itself. A purely prose-based book on the same subject wouldn’t have been able to convey the information anywhere near as well. As a certain artistic technique is explained to you, it also happens before your eyes. As different art styles are explained, the style shifts to reflect each one. It’s very clever.

Plus, throughout it all, you have Scott McCloud himself as a character, taking you on a tour through the expansive world of comics, which gives it a very loose narrative and also provides opportunities for humour every now and then. It’s a wonderfully unique approach to non-fiction writing.

It’s a very charming read and I think that any fan of comics would get a lot out of it. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it will help you to appreciate the medium more. Overall it’s educational and entertaining, which is about the most you can hope for from any piece of non-fiction.

Rating: 8/10

Buy it here.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

At first glance, this is a fairly traditional fantasy novel, one with an evil overlord who needs to be overthrown for the good of the people. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find that there’s a lot of nuance to it which helps make the world of Mistborn feel much more three dimensional.

The novel has quite a large cast of characters, but I’d say that the two central characters were a teenage girl named Vin and a charismatic man named Kelsier, who leads a gang of thieves who are planning to overthrow the Tyrannical Lord Ruler. Vin has lead a horrible life and isn’t very trusting of anyone as a result. It’s through her that we are introduced to the world and all the things in it, so she’s a nice sort of gateway character, even though her life will be so different to most readers.

Conversely, Kelsier is a man who likes to put his trust in everyone and seems to be a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, although he certainly has a darker side. What was interesting was that he was so personable that, as a reader, I found myself liking him and being able to look past the bad things that he did. He was a morally grey character (they all were, really) but Kelsier wins you over. Almost like a cult leader, I suppose. It was great to see the evolving relationship between Kelsier and Vin and there were several particularly enjoyable and memorable interactions between the two.

An important aspect of the novel is that the ‘magic’ of this world (called Allomancy) is a very structured system which is almost closer to a science. In this book, when people consume different types of metals, they gain different powers. For example, iron lets a person pull nearby metals towards them, brass soothes peoples emotions and makes them more amiable, and pewter gives people a huge boost in endurance. People consume the metal in vials, then it lasts until their body has burned all of it. There are eight different metals which grant powers, but most people can only use one, or none of them. Only a few people can use all eight and those who can are called Mistborn. It’s a very nice system and the fact that you know exactly how it works helps make the setting feel more real. I appreciate the amount of thought which had been put into it.

Another character I was particularly fond of was Sazed, a eunuch who assists Vin throughout a lot of the novel. He was such a kind and gentle man who created such a contrast with the cold, hard world around him. He dedicates his life to trying to save the world’s many religions (vanquished under the Lord Ruler) using a power called Feruchemy, which allows him to store knowledge and information within metals, for him to access whenever he needs. Feruchemy is just as expertly laid out as Allomancy. Many things (e.g. energy, eye sight, strength etc.) can be stored within metals and accessed when needed, meaning someone could choose to have poor eye sight for a period of time and then later have particularly strong eyesight because they’d saved the ability for later.

Equally, I was quite pleased with the Lord Ruler himself. His an immortal man who has been leading the empire for thousands of years, hence why they call it ‘The Final Empire’ – nobody believes that he could be overthrown. You may think he sounds like a typical evil overlord, but you actually get a good look at his backstory and how he came to be who he is. There’s a very interesting twist with him too. He is still an absolute monster, but, again, there was that nuance which I appreciated.

Overall, it’s a wonderful fantasy novel with plenty of believable and charming characters, interesting twists and turns in the story and a lot of genuine emotion. I definitely recommend it for fans of fantasy novels and to people who just like reading generally!

Rating: 8.8/10

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I really enjoy novels which tell stories on a grand scale, things which span a character’s entire life and give you a chance to see them, the people in their life and the world around them change over time. Memoirs of a Geisha does exactly that, detailing the life of a fictional geisha, focusing especially on her life in Kyoto during the 1930s and the 1940s.

Life for a geisha is hard and far from the luxurious life that their clients may have believed them to lead. You see the things that they have to endure, from difficult clients to the toxic atmosphere created by geishas working competitively in the same area. At times, it was a difficult book to read because there are a lot of hardships contained within the story, but it’s also deeply compelling. The main character is sold at a young age, before she could even really comprehend that someone would sell a child, then she finds it very hard to adapt to life with the new family she lives with afterwards.

She’s not a geisha at first and instead simply works to keep their house clean as a servant. I felt very sorry for her most of the time – especially as she is continuously manipulated by Hatsumomo, a geisha and “sister” living in the same house. Hatsumomo was an especially unlikable character – devilishly intelligent and using that intelligence to bend everybody to her will. But, ultimately, she’s a tragic figure and someone created by the unpleasant environment in which geisha had to exist. Her ultimate fate, I thought, really highlighted that and I do always enjoy a story which makes me feel sorry for someone I initially disliked.

There were a lot of strong characters in this book. Another good one was Nobu, a business man who enjoys the company of geisha, but who can be quite a difficult and bitter man to deal with. There’s also Mameha, an older geisha who does a lot to help the protagonist in her career as a geisha. They both left a big impression on me, although, unfortunately, I did feel that Chiyo (a.k.a. Sayuri), the main character, seemed very much a kind of blank canvas. I’ve heard it said that this was done to reflect the way that geisha were expected to be almost living dolls, having no personality of their own and existing only for the pleasure of others… but I’d still have preferred her to feel a little more well rounded. Funnily enough, she, as the narrator of the story, feels more fleshed out than she as the main character, actually does, if that makes sense?

I felt the story picked up a lot at the advent of the Second World War – naturally, everybody’s lives are changed drastically and it’s very sad to see the toll that it takes on all of the characters (and the city they know). Something I particularly enjoyed was the fact that it showed the war through the eyes of regular people living in Japan, a perspective which I’ve not encountered very often in the fiction that I’ve consumed, so it was a refreshing change from the usual – and an educational one.

So, overall, it’s a book I recommend quite strongly. It gives a fascinating insight into Japan during the early twentieth century and of the life and culture surrounding geishas. The world is wonderfully fleshed out and filled with endearing characters whose fates you’ll be keen to discover. Just be sure to prepare yourself emotionally, it can be pretty intense – there was one scene in particular, containing sexual assault, which I found particularly upsetting. Not that that’s a bad thing – people need to aware of these things and it’s good that Arthur Golden didn’t hold back, but it is difficult to read sometimes. Still, the novel took me on quite a journey and one which I’m glad I got to go on.

Rating: 9/10

Buy it here.

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