2016 in Books | November

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 ★★☆

guest-cat-coverOn 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.

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The Simonside Hills

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!

2016 in Books | July & August

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!

dorisFirstly 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 by Natsuo Kirino ★★★★☆

OUT.jpgWow. 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.

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.