2017 in Books | My Top 5

Hi, it’s been a while! I meant to keep up with this blog every month throughout 2017 too, but my final year of university was coming to a chaotic end, so I couldn’t find the time until most of the year had passed.

HOWEVER, I hope to keep track of my 2018 books in a more efficient monthly fashion! In the meantime, I thought I would do a short post rounding up my favourite reads from this year. Here goes…

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

ozeki.jpgThis book blew me away! The premise itself is really close to the kinds of ideas I centre my artistic practice around, so I was captivated immediately. It begins with an author on an island in British Columbia finding a diary and other objects washed up on the beach in a ziploc bag. The diary is written by a Japanese teenager called Naoko, or Nao, who used to live in the United States, but returns to Japan. Her life back in Japan is bleak; her father is unemployed and depressed, she is bullied by her schoolmates, and misses her old life. However, the chapters written in Nao’s voice are both peppy and humorously cynical, and I felt myself really feeling for her. The other parts of the novel are told by Ruth, the author who finds the diary, and her feelings towards Nao and her serendipitous presence in her life, by way of the diary.

This book seemed to me like a musing on temporality. Time is a big feature of the narrative. Lost time; endings; presence on earth; connections to other humans. Using fiction or writing or documentation to reach forward or back through time. Leaving your mark on the world. I don’t know what I can say to do justice to the big themes and the masterful narrative Ozeki structures to construe them! I think it was a great portrayal of mental illnesses too, be these depression or dementia. I just thought it was beautiful.

“It’s like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me! . . . It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out into the ocean of space and time.”

2. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

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WOW! I read this in January and was completely absorbed by it. Audre Lorde was, in her words, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and is prolific in her writing about race, intersectional feminism, and gay rights. Zami is a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers. Lorde calls this book a biomythography; it reads as an autobiography, but works history and myth into it too. It begins with her upbringing in Harlem, NY in the 30s and 40s, being first generation, experiencing racism, her relationship with her parents, and follows her through school, college, work, and her relationships with women.

What sets this autobiography apart is Lorde’s masterful, engaging and relatable storytelling; kudos to her for making it so identifiable despite me having a very different life to hers! Lorde critically examines what it means to be a queer black woman through all these different instances in her life; how different groups bounce off of her, how she moves through the world, how it affects her intimate relationships. Anyone interested in feminism or queer issues should definitely read this memoir.

3. Tove Jansson: Work & Love by Tuula Karjalainen

It’s no secret that I am a huge Tove Jansson fan. In fact, I read this autobiography whilst I was in Finland on a artistic research trip, learning about Jansson’s life and the places she lived! I love her art, her fiction, and of course the Moomin series which she is most famous for. Work & Love is thick and full of colour images of notebooks, sketches, art, and family photographs – it’s visually very appealing.tove.jpg

I had already read Life, Art, Words, another biography by Boel Westin, and whilst a lot of the information was largely the same, I think I enjoyed Work & Love more. Perhaps this was due to a greater focus on Tove’s romantic relationships and young adulthood. As the title implies, I felt like Work & Love really delved into how her career started, the multiplicity of artistic disciplines she stretched herself across, but also the relationships which changed her life. I am talking about Vivica Bandler, the woman Tove first fell in love with as a young woman, and later, her life partner, Tuulikki Pietila.

Work & Love didn’t erase or gloss over Tove Jansson’s relationships with women, nor does it sensationalise them, and I appreciate that. The secrecy surrounding her relationship with Vivica fed into her paintings and even her Moomin stories. Her and Tuulikki travelled the world together, built a cabin on a remote island together and lived there! These relationships and where they are situated in history are important; it’s important to remember them truthfully. I thought that Karjalainen’s biography provided a fascinating look at Tove’s life, and how jam-packed it was full of drama, joy, work, and love.

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4. Pond Smelt by Jane Mai

pond smelt.jpgPond Smelt is a graphic novel by artist and cartoonist Jane Mai. I happened upon a digital version of this on twitter, and I’m really glad I stumbled across it.

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 Pond Smelt is essentially about the game Animal Crossing – for those who don’t know, it’s a videogame where you move to a village inhabited by talking animals, and you’re the only human. It sounds absurd, but it was a staple of my 2006 childhood experience, has a great nostalgic game soundtrack, and the dialogue is irreverent and cute at the same time. Pond Smelt follows Janey, a lonely human in a strange town, who doesn’t know quite how to interact with the eccentric personalities of her neighbouring animals. It’s sparsely drawn, funny, but melancholy. Everyone seems like a drifter, and sighs existential thoughts now and then. It’s a beautiful look at the repetitive nature of existing in a virtual and slightly surreal environment. I really liked it, and not just because I’m a big fan of the Animal Crossing games. (But there are quite a few in-game in-jokes that Mai works in there which I appreciated.)

You can find Pond Smelt here.

5. Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

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Witch Light is a historical fiction novel, based on the massacre at Glencoe in February 1692. What makes it amazing is that it’s told from the point of view of drifter, healer, witch, and outcast Corrag. The daughter of a witch and sex worker in a small village on the border between England and Scotland, she is forced to flee when the village turn against their unconventional family. Corrag rides a horse to the Scottish highlands, where she makes a home for herself in the glen, slowly befriends some of the Campbell clan, and eventually bears witness to the bloodshed.

I enjoyed this because it was whimsical in it’s detail; Corrag finds beauty and magic in nature, but it is ultimately a story about her survival and means of supporting herself.

She gains trust and respect from her knowledge of herbs and healing. The dangers presented in the book are not fantastical; they are realistic. Corrag faces homelessness, physical and sexual violence, exposure and loneliness, and these issues are dealt with in a sensitive way.

Trigger warning – I should mention that this book has a graphic description of sexual assault in it.

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Honorable mentions

I would be remissed if I didn’t mention these other great reads of 2017.

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Doll Hospital, edited by Bethany Rose Lamont

I was lucky to get a copy of issue 3 of Doll Hospital, an art & literature print journal on mental health. This also included a digital PDF of issue 4, which I can read on my phone on my commute! I reviewed issue 2 in my September 2016 blog post, and my feelings towards issues 3 and 4 are largely the same. It is simply an honest collection of people’s experiences and feelings regarding mental illness and trauma. Doll Hospital has helped educate me, and it has been there for me when I am struggling too. I think we are lucky to have a mental health journal which prioritises really marginalised voices and narratives.

Find and support Doll Hospital Journal here.

Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue

Stir Fry is a short lesbian novel set in 1990s Dublin. The set up is a little cheesy; a young student moves in with two gay women – but she doesn’t realise they’re gay! You can see where this is going. However, I found it a warm and comforting coming-of-age lesbian  book; it’s kind of slice-of-life actually. And I liked the 90s nostalgia – remember payphones?!

Flowering Harbour by Seiichi Hayashi

This graphic novel was gifted to me by my friend Holly for my birthday. It is beautifully drawn, in deep blue with rainy lines, and very melancholy. Super existential, super beautiful, the perfect graphic novel.

After Nothing Comes by Aidan Koch

Aidan Koch is one of my favourite artists; she makes drawings, comics, books and paintings. Her comics hint at a narrative, usually fragmented conversations and settings.

After Nothing Comes is a compilation of her finished and unfinished comics. My friend Sofie lent me this book, and it had a big influence on my own art practice. I like that Koch includes ‘imperfections’ in this – pencil smudges, torn or unevenly cut paper; it makes it real and less intimidating. Art can be small and human.

Find Aidan Koch’s work here.

 

2016 in Books | September

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:

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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!)