2016 in Books | December

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.jpgCitizen: 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.

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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..

fourThe 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.

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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-cover.jpgTampa 
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.

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All 30 books I read in 2016!

2016 in Books | October

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.

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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.

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.

 

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.