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!)

 

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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 | 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.