In January I only finished one book; a lengthy coming-of-age graphic novel by Tillie Walden, called Spinning.
Spinning by Tillie Walden ★★★★☆
This book was given to me as a Christmas present. It’s essentially a memoir about the author growing up in the world of figure skating, and the different pressures the author/main character receives from all sides as an adolescent. The rigorous training regimes, a relocation to a completely different state, and a secret girlfriend all mount upon the main character, and we see her face depression and loneliness as she is denied freedom to love and live in a way that she wants. I feel like there are conflicted feelings towards the skating which is reflected in the novel; it’s beautiful, but hard. The main character is moving toward adulthood, and deciding: is it worth it?
I love Walden’s use of colour and space; the accents of yellow in the pits and stretches of deep indigo are exquisite. I think she is a very talented graphic artist. The narrative was paced well, but I was left wanting more moments of hope and resolution; I’m not sure if this book has a happy ending, and happy moments are sparse. A melancholy read which I appreciated on many levels, though.
So my 2016 Reading Challenge comes to an end! Having more free time during the winter break, I managed to blast through a lot more books than I had in previous months to get to my goal of 30. Here’s what I read in December…
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine ★★★★★
Citizen: An American Lyric blew me away. It’s quite hard to describe what this book is, formally; it’s somewhere between poetry, prose, and essays. Citizen is about racism against African Americans in the USA and how it pervades the everyday, ranging from underlying microaggressions, to violent hate crimes. Rankine deals with her and others’ experiences of racism, collective and individual trauma, and she deals with it so powerfully. Everyone should read this book. It’s an education, it’s a protest, it’s important.
Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill ★★★☆☆
This wasn’t quite what I expected. It is more like a history book on the subject of witchcraft, rather than looking at the subject through different lenses (historical, present day, cultural, feminist perspectives, in fiction, etc.) Gaskill touches on these wider angles at the end, but it’s not very balanced. Most of the book is just describing historical cases of witch hunting and trials in Europe, and occasionally Africa. I think the focus was too narrow, and this book could have been done better – witchcraft is such a rich subject!
Sailor Moon, Vol. 1 by Naoko Takeuchi ★★★★☆
The first Sailor Moon manga I have read – and hopefully one of many! I am a fan of the anime TV series, but the episodes are a lot of “monster of the week”filler sometimes; I thought the manga might cut to the chase more. I was right! The plot was surprisingly engaging, and the dialogue was funny. The characters have depth to them which again, surprised me; for some reason I expected this book to be quite surface-level. It is silly but it’s fun, and the drawing is really beautiful.
Also, Sailor Moon is known for being quite accommodating to queer story lines and characters (see Sailor Uranus & Sailor Neptune’s relationship, amongst others) but I was amused by how much the female characters crush on one another! (Usagi follows Rei on the bus because she thinks she’s pretty and has heart-eyes!!) Maybe it’s a cultural difference (?) but Sailor Moon seems kinda gay to me…which I wholeheartedly approve of!
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin ★★★★★
Another triumph by Ursula! Set in the Hainish ‘cycle’, or universe, like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Four Ways to Forgiveness explores two new planets called Werel and Yeowe through four different narrative perspectives. Werel is a planet with a history of slavery, and colonises its neighbouring planet Yeowe for this purpose. Later, there is an uprising against the Werelian slave traders, and the enslaved people claim Yeowe and freedom for themselves. Navigating freedom and what it means is a big theme in this book..
The four different narratives are not told in a linear time frame, and range greatly in perspective. Le Guin is a master at creating worlds through giving us windows, shining light on a wider universe from different points. From an elderly person, post-liberation on Yeowe and how she deals with the aftermath of slavery and forming a new society, to an alien outsider sent by the Ekumen to improve diplomatic relations with other planets, Le Guin portrays a place which sounds alien but is rooted in truth. Comparisons can of course be made between colonialism, Europe’s slave trade, and American plantations, and the atrocities that happened to millions of Africans and natives as a result. It’s an exploration of race, feminism, slavery, trauma, unforgivable lack of humanity, and it’s shocking to be reminded that these awful things happened on Earth recently. Science-fiction anthropological realism at its best.
Come Close by Sappho ★★★★☆
A small collection of poetry by Sappho. I really like how simple her writing is; she uses few words but conjures up intimate, sensitive and often luxurious scenes, imbued with nostalgia.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway ★★★☆☆
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. This was my first Hemingway book. In the beginning, his sentence structure really irritated me; it seemed very stilted and obvious. I know that this sparse use of words and unnecessary (?) punctuation is what he is famed for, but I couldn’t get behind it. However, as the story developed I found myself more drawn into the plot, and less distracted by the syntax. I’m glad I read it, as it’s good to have read another “classic”, but it wasn’t a favourite.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting ★★★★☆
[TW: discussion of underage sexual abuse – don’t read on if you find this distressing!]
Shocking. From the very first page, it’s explicit, and it only gets more extreme from there on.
Tampa is a novel about a female school teacher who is a sexual predator, her victims of choice being fourteen year old boys. It’s told from the perspective of the teacher, Celeste, and this makes it even more provocative and difficult to process. She is a sociopath who exploits everyone around her in order to achieve her goal: grooming and sexually abusing pubescent boys. Her behaviour is so strange, irrational and cruel, but it’s not conveyed in an unrealistic manner. Your feelings of horror, disgust and morbid curiosity towards Celeste are real, and that’s what makes Tampa so unnerving.
Nutting does not spare any sexual details, and paragraphs can often be crudely explicit. However, she also has a knack for really subtle and beautiful similes, which seems weird to say, but I think she is a really talented writer. I have seen Tampa be compared to Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) and American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis). Having not read the former, I can’t comment. I do understand the comparison with American Psycho, as both protagonists have a similar distanced, observational coldness, which allows them to pursue their particular horrific interests without reparations of guilt. There are echoes of Patrick Bateman in Celeste, but I feel that Nutting is simply a better writer. She weaves a disturbing narrative with ease, sometimes dipping into excess, but always sticking to the tension of the plot. I can’t say the same for Ellis.
It’s a confrontational book, and the subject matter is very uncomfortable at times, but I couldn’t stop reading. Don’t read this book if you’re sensitive to these issues, or on public transport; if someone were to read over your shoulder…just don’t, trust me.
In November I read 2 books. Not exceptional, but not bad.One was a short Japanese novel called The Guest Cat, and the other a strange find, all about myths and magical happenings in Northumberland throughout history! Dwarves, fairies and vampires have all trod the same ground I have supposedly…
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide ★★☆☆☆
On paper, this is exactly the kind of book I’d like. It’s about a cat, it’s Japanese fiction, it’s set in Tokyo…unfortunately, The Guest Cat disappointed me. It is about a couple who are both writers, and is mainly concerned with their fascination with the neighbouring cat which comes to visit their house and garden every day. The couple’s relationship seemed lacklustre (maybe that’s the point?) and there was a sense of boredom and ennui throughout the novel. For me, this wasn’t conveyed poignantly enough. It was slow-paced and slightly melancholy, but I just couldn’t sympathise with the characters. I kept waiting for a twist, or a point where the plot picked up, which never really came.
It took me a long time to read this book, despite it only being 136 pages. Hiraide’s prose is beautiful and very descriptive, but sometimes too much; I tended to zone out when there were long paragraphs describing sections of the garden in detail.
Whilst I love cats, there is only so interesting a story about a cat can be.
Myth and Magic of Northumbria by J.W. Thompson ★★☆☆☆
I found this book in Barter Books (a gigantic second hand bookshop made from a converted train station in Alnwick, Northumberland!) It is somewhere between a history book (uses a lot of full names and dates) and fiction (mythical folklore) and perhaps would have been better if it erred to the side of fantasy and became more fictional I think.
However, some of the stories are nice; it’s really cool hearing mythology about specific places you’ve grown up with and set foot on! I especially liked one story about the dwarves of Simonside in the Cheviot Hills.
Another gem was Vampires of the Border, set in Berwick; I’d spent a week there in September volunteering for the film and media arts festival and visited historical sites all over the town, so reading about a supposed vampire which ran around terrorising Berwick at night in the 1300s was hilarious!
It is quite a basic book, obviously low budget and catered to a local audience, and could be written better, but it was a nice thing to pick up, and I’m glad it exists. I didn’t know there were so many fantastical stories about the North East of England!
I only managed to finish one book in October. My final year of university is in full swing and it’s been hard to find time. According to Goodreads I am 70% of the way through my goal of 30 books at this point — I need to read 9 more before New Year to achieve it! Better get reading.
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson ★★★★☆
Lighthousekeeping is about a young girl who becomes orphaned in a climbing accident, and goes to be an apprentice of the blind lighthouse keeper in her coastal village. But, in a typical Jeanette Winterson style, it also has a few more narratives woven into this, about ancestors and the history of the village.
I loved the setting of this book – cliffs and a stormy lighthouse on the coast of Scotland is an ideal setting. This isn’t the first book I’ve read by Winterson and I always like the way she describes things like food and light. “We ate sausages and darkness” is one line about life in the lighthouse. Everything is considered and appreciated in her prose.
The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.
Lighthousekeeping is also very much about storytelling, the connectedness of everything in the world, and the intersections of all the stories. The importance of writing down or telling aloud stories, otherwise they are lost to the void. When you share a story, you give it life, because it now exists in another person.
Nothing can be forgotten. Nothing can be lost. The universe itself is one vast memory system. Look back and you will find the beginnings of the world.
One thing I lament is that the cover of this book had so much potential, and the version I have is so wrong for it. I don’t see how it correlates with the plot or themes in any way – it makes it look like generic ‘chick-lit’ when really it is beautiful and highly original prose?! It could have been a dark and moody picture of the lighthouse, maybe a linocut print, or of the cliffs, Pew in his boat, or visual interpretation of all the stories woven together. Anything! But not that rosy neo-impressionist boring cover! Maybe this should be my task before the end of the year – design a new cover for Lighthousekeeping.
This month I read two books; both non-fiction! I found Lesbian Sex Wars lurking in the gender studies section of Barter Books (one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain, made out of a converted train station!) The other was a shiny new copy of issue 2 of Doll Hospital, a bi-annual art and literature print journal on mental health.
Lesbian Sex Wars by Emma Healey ★★★★☆
The title of this book is kind of sensationalist at first, but really it’s not as sexy or violent as it may appear. This is a book about the ‘wars’ (disagreements and discourse) between lesbians who practiced BDSM, and lesbian feminists, between the 70s and 90s. But, it also contains a lot of context about lesbian identity in the 20th century. Here are some thoughts about the issues I cobbled together:
I found it really interesting to learn about butch/femme identities (which were more prevalent earlier on) and the backlash against them. I found it interesting that Healey highlights that butch and femme aren’t academic theories being practiced, they are just natural identities or roles which develop in real, and often working class, life. Whether they are “problematic” is another issue, but it is reiterated that they are not deliberately constructed.
I was also glad to see Healey distinguishing between butch and masculine; many butch women are upset when they are read as men, and it’s a common misconception that they are “trying to be men” – I thought this was a really important thing to highlight.
Another thing that came to mind whilst reading Lesbian Sex Wars was strictness and policing of behaviour and views in social-justice or activist spaces. Some of the groups of lesbians could be compared, in their methods, to some in the online social-justice “scene” that exists on Tumblr and Twitter today? Radical opinions and a no-tolerance approach is sometimes isolating, even to those involved or in the community, and can be more detrimental than a kinder approach to educating.
…That turned into a bit of an essay, whoops. Onto the next book:
Doll Hospital: Issue 2, edited by Bethany Rose Lamont★★★★★
This is a real gem. Both the content and aesthetic of this book are spot on! Doll Hospital is basically a compilation of art and writing on mental health. Most of these contributions are about the contributors’ own experience, and I think this is really important. The book serves as a great medium to open up conversations about mental health in a safe and thoughtful environment. There is diversity in the experiences shared – effort to include illnesses and disorders such as schizophrenia, OCD, BPD and trichtillomania which are often overlooked by mainstream mental health narratives is notable. There is also diversity in the backgrounds of the contributors; I think Doll Hospital practices intersectional feminism very well, by including voices of black women, working class women, Muslim women, women of colour, queer women etc.
Everything is written clearly, honestly, and relatably. Doll Hospital is a comforting and important resource for those struggling with mental health issues and might not find narratives (especially to do with healing or coping) similar to this elsewhere. Also, the artwork featured and the layout of the book is beautiful.
We believe print is the best medium for this project — a refuge from toxic comment sections and constant link skipping. Something tangible to slip in your book bag and read on the bus. Something still, something quiet, something just for you. – Doll Hospital Journal
I really admire Doll Hospital’s cause and the product they have managed to put out there! It is kind but political, a project about survival. Visit www.dollhospitaljournal.com for more information on the project, as well as an online shop where you can buy a copy (I would highly recommend!)
I’m putting my books for July and August together this month because I was on holiday in South Korea at the end of July! I finished The Encyclopedia of Doris before I went away, and in between sightseeing reread The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and devoured a Japanese crime fiction novel on the plane: Out by Natsuo Kirino.
The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb ★★★★☆
This is the second anthology of Doris, a biannual perzine written by anarcho-feminist Cindy Gretchen Ovenrack Crabb. I discovered an extract from Doris in another zine anthology – A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World– and immediately tried to seek out more Doris. To my delight, TWO whole anthologies spanning two decades exist!
Firstly you might be wondering: what is a ‘perzine’? Or even, what is a ‘zine’? Zines are handmade, low budget magazines, usually on a specific topic such as certain bands, feminism, travel, or personal experiences. They are usually made with the help of a photocopier and some staples or thread. A perzine is a category of zine which often reads like a diary, with the author writing about their life, thoughts and feelings.
I think that Doris is the ultimate perzine – Cindy writes so tenderly about her friends, family, personal history, political views, struggles etc. Cindy’s writing is often anecdotal and introspective, but universal at the same time. Her message is hopeful, and strives towards personal healing; her brand of anarchism/feminism is one that believes kindness to other human beings is the route towards revolution. I had never really read much about anarchism before and was surprised by how tender and community-driven her political theory was. Anarchy doesn’t mean chaos and destruction; it can mean growth and change. I really can’t stress glad I am that I discovered Doris.
This anthology is a little more political, I feel, than Doris: An Anthology (a collection of zines written between 1991 – 2001). Cindy tackles issues like abuse, addiction, and grief, which makes for heavier reading, but it is definitely important. I gave this book four stars because I think I enjoyed the first book a little more, but that is just because of my slight preference for perzines over more political zines.
You can purchase Cindy Crabb’s zines and books at her website here, and read an interview with her here.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin ★★★★★
This is my second time reading the book that got me hooked on Ursula K. Le Guin. This is where it all started! And I think The Dispossessed was even better the second time around. I could appreciate the ideas Le Guin sets up about utopias, their fragility and strategies for preserving them, and the forces of anarchy and capitalism and things like that. I like how she splits the storytelling into chapters set on the two planets in the past and present, too.
I would definitely recommend The Dispossessed to anyone into sci-fi and/or feminism. It’s a great ‘gateway’ to Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed, in a nutshell, is about a physicist developing a mode of instant communication between planets. He is from a barren anarchist/socialist colonised planet called Anarres, and is invited down to the more bountiful and capitalist planet Urras in order to develop and share his theories with other scientists. The planets are each others’ moons, and many ideas are called into question about social norms, learned behaviours, politics and morality when he visits this (literally) alien world. It’s a classic of science-fiction.
Out byNatsuo Kirino ★★★★☆
Wow. I read this entire book on the plane back from Japan, which to be fair was two long-haul flights, but it’s quite a thick book and I stormed through it. Out is a Japanese crime novel which begins with a frustrated and beaten-down housewife strangling her husband to death, and then employing the help of her coworkers at a factory to dispose of the body and evidence. It is tense and intense. Like, The Killing tense. Or Se7en tense. Interestingly, it’s told from the perspective of the murderer and accomplices, but you’re totally rooting for them, and the guilt and threat of being caught makes you even more on edge.
I really can’t tell if this is a feminist book or not! I think it is feminist in its characterisation of the women. The four main female characters differ radically from each other, have their own motives, independence (or lack of) and abject flaws. There is no tokenism or stereotyping here; Kirino does well in creating a female group dynamic which defies conventions. However, the ending of the book was confusing and difficult to read…I’m not sure if I ‘got’ it. I won’t spoil it, but comment what you thought if you have read it! I was hoping for a blaze of glory type ending. Perhaps it was, but in a different way to usual.
I’m now halfway through my 2016 reading challenge – I’ve read 15 of 30 books, yay! I only managed to read one book in June, but I’m really making my way through the sci-fi classics this year – it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which inspired Blade Runner.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick ★★★★☆
I have been meaning to read Androids since doing a module on dystopian fiction in high school, but for some reason didn’t get round to it. I watched Blade Runner a few months ago which gave me a push to finally read it.
Firstly I want to get all book-film comparisons out of the way and just say that the book does differ quite radically in tone and plot from Blade Runner. The most notable difference for me when reading was…what the heck is with the characters’ obsessions with animals?!
Of course, the answer is obvious – the humans cling to their connection and ability to care for pets as a symbol of their humanity. Androids can’t look after pets, they simply don’t have the motivation or capacity. So having an animal (even one as obscure as the titular sheep, or emu) proves you’re not an android, basically. I found it pretty comical though; I think it’s because Rick Deckard is ultra-masculine, detached, unfeeling, yet pines after ownership of owls and other quite twee pets? Maybe this is because I code love of animals as childish or feminine – and to be honest that’s not very feminist of me. It just seemed bizarrely amusing when reading.
On the subject of Deckard and feminism – wow. He does not act kindly to the significant women in his life. However, I was glad to see a distinction in the book with the sex scene with Rachael – in the film it’s very uncomfortable and I viewed it as basically a rape scene. However, in the book both parties consent, and Deckard is kind of played and outsmarted by Rachael later on. Hell yeah.
(Going back to the point about Deckard and animals – he doesn’t seem to actually want to care for the pet, he just wants it as a status symbol – I think this lends itself to the ambiguous Is Deckard a Replicant conspiracy! I’m going to read up about that, because theoretically it’s quite possible… I like that Dick keeps it open though.)
Generally I really enjoyed Androids; the characterisation was good and so was the plot and pacing.I would read more of Dick’s work. I think he is great at immersing the reader in the very classic science-fiction-y world he sculpts, and in this book he did what good sci-fi needs: called up the bigger questions; about humanity, kindness, and intelligence.
May was a busy month, and I only managed to read two books; I finished off Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, and a new graphic novel find, Paper Girls.
Art in Nature by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆
Art in Nature is a collection of many short stories. In this respect it is quite similar to A Winter Book, which I read earlier this year; however, A Winter Book drew more on the author’s childhood and family experiences, whereas Art in Nature perhaps explores the role of the artist/writer/illustrator/cartoonist, depending on each story. In this way I think it reflects the anxieties or problems each medium of art brings; maybe fiction was a way for Jansson to exorcise this.
The story about a cartoonist taking over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown had a darkness underlying it; also, I had no idea before this that cartoonists are replaced by new artists, but pull the wool over the eyes of the public, keeping the ‘changeover’ very subtle and fooling everyone into thinking it has been the same person drawing it the whole time! This was one of the best stories I think, it called into question identity, pressure and mystery in a subtle way.
I also spied that there were two same-sex couples implied in two of the stories; it wasn’t explicitly said, but there seemed to be male partners and female partners cohabitating (and arguing, as couples do.) Jansson had a female life partner so it was nice to see some quiet representation that is of the times she lived in (Art in Nature was first published in 1978, so explicit descriptions of gay partnerships wouldn’t have been received well then.)
Jansson’s writing is concise and light but always philosophical and poignant. However, I’m giving it three stars just because I didn’t feel it lived up to her other work.
Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan ★★★☆☆
Aesthetically, this graphic novel is a dream. The story begins at dawn, and focuses on four girls doing their paper round (hence the title there) and so the colour palette is all lilacs and deep dreamy blues.
The narrative, for me, did not match up to how beautiful the design was. I quite like the premise; it’s all about apocalyptic happenings and people travelling from the future, but everything was quite muddled and got surreal very fast; it feels like they’re doing their paper round and arguing and then a gigantic pterodactyl is suddenly bearing down upon them. Maybe this was the point. But I think it leaves the reader confused in a “where did that come from” kind of way rather than a “wow this is really meta and bizarre” kind of way.
Don’t get me wrong though; I would read the next volume. (Not least because they left it on a cliffhanger!) I just think the book’s pacing and clarity could have done with a bit more work. However, points for the tough female gang, and racial diversity. And the wonderful 1980s outfits.
In April I read three books: two were pretty dark (a historical Scandinavian murder mystery, and a Japanese novella about pain and pleasure and a strange older man!!) and the other was a depressing but fairly relatable lesbian graphic novel. These were Wolf Winter, Hotel Iris, and Blue is the Warmest Colour, respectively.
Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck ★★★★★
Dark Scandinavian historical fiction? Plus murder, plus magic, plus a plucky female protagonist that defies 18th century stereotypes? YES PLEASE.
Wolf Winter is written extremely well. Once I got into it I couldn’t stop reading; you feel like everyone in the small community has secrets or an ulterior motive that they’re hiding, and like Maija the protagonist, you want to unearth them. Everything comes to a head at the end of the book; there are a lot of dark elements floating around, but Ekbäck reiterates that the real evil comes from humans, not magic or sinister mountains.
This book has been compared to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and I don’t disagree with this comparison. Both books are set in harsh Scandinavian landscapes (actually, Iceland technically isn’t Scandinavia is it? Oops) hundreds of years ago, have a misunderstood but strong central female character, and murder is the trigger which sets each narrative in motion. They are both skilfully paced and gripping. If you liked Burial Rites, read Wolf Winter, and vice versa! If you haven’t read either: get on it.
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa ★★★★★
Another train-ride-read; Hotel Iris is quite short, and I finished it on the train to Birmingham and back. HOWEVER, I was unaware of how sexually explicit this book is when I took it with me, and would like to take this chance to say it is NOT the best book to read on public transport when sitting next to a stranger! (Thankfully I think the man next to me didn’t notice.)
I’ve read two other books by Ogawa, The Diving Pool and Revenge, and I think she is an amazing writer. Her stories are dark — and I mean dark — they seem to tap into subconscious desires and fears and everything twisted and spiteful and morbid about being human. Hotel Iris is set in a seasonal seaside town, where a 17 year old girl lives and works with her oppressive mother in their hotel. She is treated like a child and given no free time to socialise with other people her own age. The story begins with an incident at the hotel; an altercation between an older man and a sex-worker. The girl is drawn to the older man and his dominating manner, and enters into a strange relationship on the island off the coast where he lives, where she finds pleasure being hurt, degraded and humiliated.
I don’t think Hotel Iris is just a novella about BDSM, though. It is definitely more than problematic erotica (cough, Fifty Shades) because the narrative and mounting tension and intrigue around the older man (who is never actually named, only called the translator; his profession) and his dead wife, and why the protagonist Mari desires him and the extreme sexual relationship they have together, raise so many questions. As a feminist, I found some parts hard to read because the border of consent seems blurred or ambiguous. It’s written in the first person, so Mari would describe the harsh punishment of the translator and extreme discomfort he puts her through, but then say she wanted nothing more. Also the age gap (17 – mid 60s?) seems fraught with problems. Power seems to be a major theme…not just sexual power, but the more subtle forms of manipulation that lie outside of this. I can’t decide what I thought of the ending, and whether Mari won or lost in the grand scheme of things…very ambiguous, and very dark.
I gave it five stars because I haven’t read anything like it before and I think Ogawa is a fantastic and skilled storyteller, and her prose is beautiful, even when describing debased things. She manages to incorporate the extraordinary and disturbing into realism, and the result is unsettling.
Blue is the Warmest Colour by Julie Maroh ★★★☆☆
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, having seen the film a few years ago and liking it, despite the very-obviously-directed-by-a-man, over-the-top porn-y sex scene. I was intrigued to see how the original graphic novel, written by a lesbian, compared.
I think the book is a lot more tragic in terms of both plot (Emma is reading Clementine’s diaries posthumously from the beginning) and in atmosphere – the colour palette is grey with spots of blue… although I guess this reiterates the title that blue is indeed the warmest colour in the book, ha ha. But, it did make me feel quite down. It’s hopeful in places, but really is just a doomed story of lesbian love, and that has become so much of a trope lately that queer women have started speaking out about it.
I didn’t really like Maroh’s drawing style, so that is why BITWC only gets three stars. I thought it was sketchy in a way that wasn’t my taste, and the facial expressions were often too exaggerated. However, I did think it was a poignant read and an accurate coming-out story. I just wish it was a bit less sorrowful and with less death.
I am also currently reading The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb, and Art In Nature by Tove Jansson, which I’ll hopefully finish next month!
I read three books this month: incidentally, two lesbian novels: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (sapphically suggestive titles all round…) as well as a science-fiction classic, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters ★★★★☆
This is a long-un but it’s a good-un. It’s a drawn out, twisted lesbian novel set in the 19th century, the story focusing around two 17 year old girls, one who becomes the other’s maid under false pretences, as part of a larger plot to steal the other’s fortune. The beginning is
slightly slow, and all a bit Oliver Twist, which isn’t really my taste. However, it slowly builds up to the end of part one where there is a shocking twist – and I mean shocking. From that point on it becomes darker and more complicated, and I couldn’t stop reading. It’s all about betrayal, trust, unreliable narratives and second guessing your original thoughts. The narrative is not realistic…but if you’re looking for escapism I think Waters sets the tone and paces the book really well. Persevere through part one, it is worth it!
If you’re looking for a classic lesbian romance, this might not be the book for you; it doesn’t really focus on the characters’ identities, and their relationship is mostly overshadowed by the wider narrative arch. However, I liked it and made me want to read more of Sarah Waters – I have put Tipping the Velvet on my to-read list.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown ★★★★★
I loved this book! I read it in two sittings, on the train to and from Newcastle to London. Really easy to read. The protagonist and narrator is Molly, and we follow her from tomboy childhood to early adulthood, and her adventures on the East Coast of the USA. I thought it was an accurate and relatable depiction of queer female sexuality, the growth of it, and how it is tied up with identity. I actually found it pretty empowering. A lesbian book where the lesbian is not a victim! Or dies at the end! She is self-sufficient and happy! There is an uplifting ending!
It is definitely a coming-of-age novel, and I like that. It’s funnily written, and I would totally recommend it to any lesbian, bi, or pan women. Actually, any women I think would enjoy it – it’s really accessible fiction about queer sexuality, friendship, and growing up.
Solaris byStanislaw Lem ★★★★☆
Wow. This was intense. I actually felt quite unsettled a lot of the time while reading this. I knew about the premise of the book before reading it; a man travels to a space station orbiting an ocean planet called Solaris, only to find that flesh-and-blood replicas of his dead wife keep reappearing. The protagonist, Kelvin, is a psychologist, sent to the station to analyse the other members of the team, who are suffering from the same affliction, which he initially assumes to be hallucinations. After proving to himself that he is in fact not in a dream nor hallucination through complex calculations, he and the other members of the crew have to work out what to do about the figures from their respective pasts who have appeared on the ship.
What I didn’t know was how Lem creates this concept of the alien which I’d never considered; the oceanic surface is in fact some kind of life form, and humanity attempts to ‘make contact’ with it over a number of years. However, its responses seem unreliable, and its true nature remains elusive. Is it conscious, sentient, intelligent? Is it similar to a gigantic amoeba, or is it more like a multi-celled fluid creature? Is it a god? The difference between the ocean and any form of life we recognise on Earth is vast; Lem made me reconsider the commonly assumed idea of an alien being some variation of plant or animal.
Solaris definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the only female character who speaks is Rheya, the reincarnation of Kelvin’s deceased wife. For the most part, she is vulnerable, confused and dependent. However, from a male author in the 1960s, it could be worse. Lem is no Ursula Le Guin when it comes to progressive attitudes to gender, but I didn’t have a massive problem with the book. Overall I found it an intense and compelling read, very original and a great work of sci-fi.
Some book covers from the 60s which I really like – much cooler than my George Clooney film edition!