2016 in Books | March

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 ★★★★☆

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Still from the BBC miniseries, which I need to watch!

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 ★★★★★

165395I 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 by Stanislaw 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!

2016 in Books | February

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This month I didn’t manage to read as much as I’d liked, due to a looming dissertation deadline (I am writing this a bit late, and have since finished — hooray!) I did manage to get through two Tove Jansson books though, using them as lovely Finnish escapism from the pressures of academia.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

Reading Tove Jansson’s writing makes me want to be a writer. When I read her prose I can tell how much her childhood, being around her artist parents, and adventures on the Finnish archipelago affected her. This book is a lot of beautiful and simple short stories. My favourite was The Squirrel, towards the end of the book. It features a writer living temporarily on an island by herself, and her peace (?) is disturbed when a squirrel drifts onto the island and seeks shelter there. I thought Jansson conveyed the anxieties of isolation and the rituals it produced really well. The protagonist of this story reminded me of the neurotic Fillyjonk character from the Moomin tales!

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson ★★★★☆

This Moomin book surprised me! This year I am aiming to read all the Moomin books I
haven’t read yet, and this was first up on my list. I expected it to be lighthearted, like Moominsummer Madness, but it definitely had a deeper, darker tumblr_m3xajufmhl1qib250o1_500tone,
which reflected on themes of (again) isolation – both physical and emotional. Tove really likes writing about lonely islands! It was interesting reading about how the different characters’ neuroses affect them as their time on the island wears on – Moominpappa becomes absorbed in his work, Moominmamma uses painting and gardening as escapism and longing for home, and Moomin tries to make a nest in the undergrowth of the island. Jansson’s stories, even though they are written for children, often have a melancholy undertone.

Moominpappa at Sea also features The Groke, a gigantic creature who has been described as the “personification of Nordic gloom”. I really like her though – everybody is afraid of her because she freezes everything she touches, but she isn’t malicious; she just wants to be warm. At one point she does a dance for Moomintroll which I found really amusing, and the part near the beginning where she “flies” across the sea by freezing it was a really beautiful and strange idea.

2016 in Books | January

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One of my favourites this month (typical art student, kanken in the background…)

In January I read 4 books! They were a mix of contemporary Japanese fiction, fun non-fiction essays, and a graphic novel.

Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto ★★★☆☆

This book was okay. It was recommended on Goodreads because I had read quite a lot of Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Yoko Ogawa, but aside from being set in contemporary Japan it didn’t have much in common with any of these authors’ writing. It was in epistolary form of letters between ex-husband and wife, which I quite liked. However, I think this book fell into the trap of the characters writing a lot of background information in the letters, obviously intended to inform the reader, which seems a bit unbelievable and forced sometimes. But I guess it’s difficult to get around that! I found the ex-husband to be unpleasant in a really exaggerated way, so much so that his character was a bit unbelievable. It was a fairly enjoyable read overall.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland ★★★★

Every art student should read this book! It is quite short but packed with revolutionary ideas about art-making, creative blocks and crises, how to persist and what being an artist means. It’s kind of like a self-help book aimed very specifically at artists and art students and I really loved it. It was like having a tutorial or crit where you come out with a new perspective, feeling like everything is going to be okay.

What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work. Simply put, artists learn how to proceed, or they don’t.

Bayles and Orland pitched radical yet simple ideas to me that I had never considered. I liked their argument that “art is made by ordinary people”, and that calling someone creative is redundant because all humans have the capacity for creativity – what matters is how and if you utilise it! The only criticism I have of this book is that 99% of examples they used were male artists and musicians. And they were mostly white and Western too! Where’s the diversity?

Lost At Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley ★★☆☆☆

I don’t have much to say about this book, other than I expected better. I am a big fan of O’Malley’s graphic novels; I love Scott Pilgrim and have read the whole series, and read Seconds last year and quite enjoyed that…he normally writes narrative really well, but this book didn’t seem to go anywhere. Maybe it is something more suited to when I was a teenager and had more angst than 21 year old me, but I did feel this story was just lacking, and nothing was really explained to a satisfactory extent. Sad, because I really liked the premise! I think it just fell short of my expectations.

Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television by a number of writers ★★★★★

I really enjoyed this. It is a compilation of essays, interviews and think-pieces on the TV show The L Word, which if you are not aware was a seminal TV series about a group of lesbian and bisexual women living in LA. The L Word was the first of its kind, so it had a lot to live up to in terms of showing realistic portrayals of queer women, and conveying the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.

Something I found really interesting which cropped up a few times in this book was the balance The L Word had to strive for to receive good ratings – attract the attention of straight people as well as queer women – whilst also remaining true to real life, but not so much as to alienate the majority of viewers. Representation is a difficult thing when you have to pander to ordinary media standards in order to keep your vision going.

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The Planet (The L Word)

Also, it was just really fun to read critical analysis or more fan-based pieces on the TV show that I watch ALL the time! Because it was so groundbreaking, and lesbian and bisexual representation is sparse on the ground, everyone has something to say about it, and it was fascinating to read the diversity in opinion. I think The L Word can be harshly criticised for its, at times, very problematic elements, but we can also acknowledge these, and praise it for what it did achieve. I am glad the book took up issues of race, trans representation, and bisexual erasure though, because these need to be addressed. It’s good that these conversations are happening in response to something we love to watch, but not unconditionally. (It should also be noted for anyone that wants to read it that the book was published at the end of Season 2, so the pieces in the book only consider the show up till this point.)

Next on my list for February are Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and A Winter Book by Tove Jansson.

New Year’s Reading

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This Christmas I was lucky enough to receive NINE books from family and my partner! Six of these I had asked for or hinted at, but three were surprises.

The books I asked for included three Tove Jansson titles: A Winter Book, Art in Nature, and Moominpappa at Sea. I really wanted to read the first two after enjoying The Summer Book so much [link to my review] so hopefully they won’t disappoint. Moominpappa at Sea is one of the (few!) Moomin books I haven’t read yet. If you haven’t guessed, I am pretty much completely obsessed with Tove Jansson and the Moomins.

I also asked for Kinshu: Autumn Brocade which I have now started reading. It was recommended to me by the Goodreads app, related to some Banana Yoshimoto books. I’m hoping this book will be somewhat similar in style, and not just recommended because they are both contemporary Japanese authors!

Art & Fear is a kind of creative self-help book (that makes it sound awful, sorry) about the ‘perils and rewards of art-making.’As a fine art undergraduate, I am frequently plagued with what me and my friends call ‘art crises’ and we have to counsel each other back into confidence, so hopefully this book will come in handy for alleviating such fears. Being a full time art student is a very emotional and intense experience – maybe because what you make is so tied up with who you are (even though the university tells you to separate this.)

I also happily received a book I have been wanting to read for years – Blue Is The Warmest Color. I have watched the film adaptation several times, and while it is problematic (let’s just say: lesbian sex scenes should probably not be directed by a straight man…) I enjoyed it, and am intrigued to see how the original graphic novel differs. I have heard from a few people that it is ‘better’, not least because it is a story about queer women, written by a queer woman. So, I am really excited to see what it has to offer, and I am growing to like graphic novels as a medium more and more.

On that note, one of the surprises I received was also a graphic novel: Lost At Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I am a big fan of Scott Pilgrim so this is a perfect present (thank you Faye). I also received two books I hadn’t previously heard of: Station Eleven and Wolf Winter. I am really excited to get stuck in and devour all these books over the next few months. Stay tuned for reviews and ‘The Month in Books’ at the end of January!

Banana Yoshimoto | Three Reviews

Goodbye Tsugumi

I’m glad I read this, coincidentally, as summer was ending and turning into autumn, as the whole book seems to be about the finite nature of summer. Endings, time. I love the way Yoshimoto describes situations you could never articulate yourself. I think she is a master of plucking vague feelings and atmospheres and weaving them into narratives so the reader has that moment of empathy or nostalgia with the characters.

This book is really calming to read. The setting is insular and the characters each sprout in radically different ways from each other which sets up great dialogue.

Really I would give this 4.5 stars, it’s another Yoshimoto favourite, almost on par with Kitchen.

Read September 2015.

Asleep

I think Banana Yoshimoto’s writing is like a pool; light and peaceful on the surface but deep and dark and full underneath. This is the third book I have read by her, having read Kitchen and N.P. It seems a step away from the lightness of Kitchen and more similar to the tale juxtaposed with it: Moonlight Shadow. Yoshimoto conveys the infinite sadness and isolation of existing in the world superbly; the bleakness of depression resonates fully in her writing. I think her prose is simple and beautiful. She transports you to a world in-between – where you are awake when everyone else is dead to the world, the feeling of the night.

Love Song plays with the idea of relationship dynamics. I thought the chemistry and analysis of the two women as rivals (and latently friends) was really interesting. Strange relationships are always great reads. The last story, Asleep is quite similar to some Murakami stories (Haruki, that is, not Ryu!) There is an underlying supernatural element amongst the hazy realism. Yoshimoto conveys the feeling of lost time and fatigue brilliantly. The way the narrative switches back to the narrator’s memories of Shiori – it is like being inside her head. Death and life and the relationships that permeate both of these spheres are touched upon in a peaceful manner. This book will stay with you after you have read it.

Read February 2015.

Kitchen

One of the most beautiful and sad and uplifting things I have ever read. Wow. I welled up at Moonlight Shadow, it conveyed grief and depression so well.

Read June 2014.

The Summer Book | Review

(A review I wrote in September 2015)

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Tove Jansson is mainly known for being the creator of the Moomin series, but as well as writing and illustrating children’s fiction and comics, she also wrote fiction for adults. The two of her novels that I have now read – The Summer Book and The True Deceiver – have both proved to be brilliant self-contained books, with less whimsy and more of the pronounced philosophical edge that Moomin only touches on.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did, or as much as other Tove Jansson I’ve read. But I did! It was very beautiful and funny and really enveloped me in the little world on the island, which is what good books should do. I think The Summer Book gives the same sort of escapism as the Moomin books (so I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these); the isolation from the rest of society and the self-sufficiency that is somehow whimsical…but this book has more of a realism to it, of course.

I especially liked the chapter about the cats. Describing the animal’s personalities and Sophia’s frustrations with them was really funny and I related to it lots. I think Jansson is great at characterisation; the bluntness of Grandmother and the fleeting dramatic crises of Sophia are so real and I love how the characters bounce off each other. She is brilliant at writing the complexities of relationships.

The setting and it’s description is beautiful…there is something about islands that I will always be interested in. Jansson keeps up the description of the weather and wind constantly, but it is not boring; it seems important to the story, maybe because the characters’ lives are so entwined with the surrounding area and nature. The chapter with the storm was definitely the climax of the book, so atmospheric…

It is another book I have read recently describing summer, and it coming to an end (having recently finished Goodbye Tsugumi.) The ending seemed poignant and sad though it doesn’t have to be. Packing things up, anxiously trying not to forget anything, being prepared. But for what? She stays outside and watches the sea… I think the ending was beautiful and melancholy but maybe hopeful. It’s that strange kind of poignancy where you can’t tell whether it’s sad or not. I get that feeling when I go to the beach. Like time is running out and I must appreciate everything in that moment..and the enormity of everything in comparison to you and your life. Maybe The Summer Book is about time and endings as much as life.

The Kelpie’s Pearls | Review

I found The Kelpie’s Pearls at my grandparents’ house, and what a find. I’m drawn to any story with witches, and I love English and Scottish folklore, so after reading the blurb I started immediately.

All the way through reading this book I thought about how it would make a fantastic Studio Ghibli film. Just the right length and simplicity of narrative, and the imagery of Scottish highlands, burns and moors would be rendered really beautifully. Maybe I thought of that because the main character, Morag, reminds me of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle – both the book and the film! She is plucky and doesn’t care what people think, and is committed to her own way of living. (I love no-nonsense old ladies who dabble in witchcraft!) I also enjoyed the cameo of the Loch Ness monster, that was a nice touch.

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Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The story is lovely but so is the detail; the kelpie’s pool next to the little house on the hillside, and the way she has tea and scones with ‘royal crowdie’, and the bus; it’s all really nice simplistic rural imagery. The occasional illustrations by Charles Keeping in the 1973 edition I read are beautiful.

I wish I’d read this as a child but to be honest I really enjoyed it as an adult; it’s not a babyish book at all. Anyone who’s a fan of stories about folklore or witchcraft would enjoy this.

As an end note — and spoiler alert — was Morag riding away on the kelpie at the end and ‘leaving this world’ a metaphor for death or even suicide? Her note to Torquil reads this way…I guess if it is, it’s a beautiful metaphor, but sad if she chose to leave because of the unwanted attention from her neighbours.

Read December 2015.