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 | 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!