2018 in Books | January

In January I only finished one book; a lengthy coming-of-age graphic novel by Tillie Walden, called Spinning.

Spinning by Tillie Walden ★★★★☆

This book was given to me as a Christmas present. It’s essentially a memoir about the author growing up in the world of figure skating, and the different pressures the author/main character receives from all sides as an adolescent. The rigorous training regimes, a relocation to a completely different state, and a secret girlfriend all mount upon the main character, and we see her face depression and loneliness as she is denied freedom to love and live in a way that she wants. I feel like there are conflicted feelings towards the skating which is reflected in the novel; it’s beautiful, but hard. The main character is moving toward adulthood, and deciding: is it worth it?

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I love Walden’s use of colour and space; the accents of yellow in the pits and stretches of deep indigo are exquisite. I think she is a very talented graphic artist. The narrative was paced well, but I was left wanting more moments of hope and resolution; I’m not sure if this book has a happy ending, and happy moments are sparse. A melancholy read which I appreciated on many levels, though.Spinning-7.jpg

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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 | 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 | 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 | 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 | 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!)

 

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.

2016 in Books | June

I’m now halfway through my 2016 reading challenge – I’ve read 15 of 30 books, yay! I only managed to read one book in June, but I’m really making my way through the sci-fi classics this year – it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which inspired Blade Runner.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick ★★★★☆

7082I have been meaning to read Androids since doing a module on dystopian fiction in high school, but for some reason didn’t get round to it. I watched Blade Runner a few months ago which gave me a push to finally read it.

Firstly I want to get all book-film comparisons out of the way and just say that the book does differ quite radically in tone and plot from Blade Runner. The most notable difference for me when reading was…what the heck is with the characters’ obsessions with animals?!

Of course, the answer is obvious – the humans cling to their connection and ability to care for pets as a symbol of their humanity. Androids can’t look after pets, they simply don’t have the motivation or capacity. So having an animal (even one as obscure as the titular sheep, or emu) proves you’re not an android, basically. I found it pretty comical though; I think it’s because Rick Deckard is ultra-masculine, detached, unfeeling, yet pines after ownership of owls and other quite twee pets? Maybe this is because I code love of animals as childish or feminine – and to be honest that’s not very feminist of me. It just seemed bizarrely amusing when reading.

On the subject of Deckard and feminism – wow. He does not act kindly to the significant women in his life. However, I was glad to see a distinction in the book with the sex scene with Rachael – in the film it’s very uncomfortable and I viewed it as basically a rape scene. However, in the book both parties consent, and Deckard is kind of played and outsmarted by Rachael later on. Hell yeah.

(Going back to the point about Deckard and animals – he doesn’t seem to actually want to care for the pet, he just wants it as a status symbol – I think this lends itself to the ambiguous Is Deckard a Replicant conspiracy! I’m going to read up about that, because theoretically it’s quite possible… I like that Dick keeps it open though.)

Generally I really enjoyed Androids; the characterisation was good and so was the plot and pacing. I would read more of Dick’s work. I think he is great at immersing the reader in the very classic science-fiction-y world he sculpts, and in this book he did what good sci-fi needs: called up the bigger questions; about humanity, kindness, and intelligence.

 

2016 in Books | May

May was a busy month, and I only managed to read two books; I finished off Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, and a new graphic novel find, Paper Girls.

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

art in natureArt in Nature is a collection of many short stories. In this respect it is quite similar to A Winter Book, which I read earlier this year; however, A Winter Book drew more on the author’s childhood and family experiences, whereas Art in Nature perhaps explores the role of the artist/writer/illustrator/cartoonist, depending on each story. In this way I think it reflects the anxieties or problems each medium of art brings; maybe fiction was a way for Jansson to exorcise this.

The story about a cartoonist taking over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown had a darkness underlying it; also, I had no idea before this that cartoonists are replaced by new artists, but pull the wool over the eyes of the public, keeping the ‘changeover’ very subtle and fooling everyone into thinking it has been the same person drawing it the whole time! This was one of the best stories I think, it called into question identity, pressure and mystery in a subtle way.

I also spied that there were two same-sex couples implied in two of the stories; it wasn’t explicitly said, but there seemed to be male partners and female partners cohabitating (and arguing, as couples do.) Jansson had a female life partner so it was nice to see some quiet representation that is of the times she lived in (Art in Nature was first published in 1978, so explicit descriptions of gay partnerships wouldn’t have been received well then.)

Jansson’s writing is concise and light but always philosophical and poignant. However, I’m giving it three stars just because I didn’t feel it lived up to her other work.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan ★★★☆☆

Aesthetically, this graphic novel is a dream. The story begins at dawn, and focuses on four girls doing their paper round (hence the title there) and so the colour palette is all lilacs and deep dreamy blues.paper girls

The narrative, for me, did not match up to how beautiful the design was. I quite like the premise; it’s all about apocalyptic happenings and people travelling from the future, but everything was quite muddled and got surreal very fast; it feels like they’re doing their paper round and arguing and then a gigantic pterodactyl is suddenly bearing down upon them. Maybe this was the point. But I think it leaves the reader confused in a “where did that come from” kind of way rather than a “wow this is really meta and bizarre” kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong though; I would read the next volume. (Not least because they left it on a cliffhanger!) I just think the book’s pacing and clarity could have done with a bit more work. However, points for the tough female gang, and racial diversity. And the wonderful 1980s outfits.

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2016 in Books | April

In April I read three books: two were pretty dark (a historical Scandinavian murder mystery, and a Japanese novella about pain and pleasure and a strange older man!!) and the other was a depressing but fairly relatable lesbian graphic novel. These were Wolf Winter, Hotel Iris, and Blue is the Warmest Colour, respectively.

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Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck ★★★★★

Dark Scandinavian historical fiction? Plus murder, plus magic, plus a plucky female protagonist that defies 18th century stereotypes? YES PLEASE.

Wolf Winter is written extremely well. Once I got into it I couldn’t stop reading; you feel like everyone in the small community has secrets or an ulterior motive that they’re hiding, and like Maija the protagonist, you want to unearth them. Everything comes to a head at the end of the book; there are a lot of dark elements floating around, but Ekbäck reiterates that the real evil comes from humans, not magic or sinister mountains.

This book has been compared to Hannah Kent’s Burial Ritesand I don’t disagree with this comparison. Both books are set in harsh Scandinavian landscapes (actually, Iceland technically isn’t Scandinavia is it? Oops) hundreds of years ago, have a misunderstood but strong central female character, and murder is the trigger which sets each narrative in motion. They are both skilfully paced and gripping. If you liked Burial Rites, read Wolf Winter, and vice versa! If you haven’t read either: get on it.

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa ★★★★★

Another train-ride-read; Hotel Iris is quite short, and I finished it on the train to Birmingham and back. HOWEVER, I was unaware of how sexually explicit this book is when I took it with me, and would like to take this chance to say it is NOT the best book to read on public transport when sitting next to a stranger! (Thankfully I think the man next to me didn’t notice.)

Hotel-Iris1I’ve read two other books by Ogawa, The Diving Pool and Revenge, and I think she is an amazing writer. Her stories are dark — and I mean dark — they seem to tap into subconscious desires and fears and everything twisted and spiteful and morbid about being human. Hotel Iris is set in a seasonal seaside town, where a 17 year old girl lives and works with her oppressive mother in their hotel. She is treated like a child and given no free time to socialise with other people her own age. The story begins with an incident at the hotel; an altercation between an older man and a sex-worker. The girl is drawn to the older man and his dominating manner, and enters into a strange relationship on the island off the coast where he lives, where she finds pleasure being hurt, degraded and humiliated.

I don’t think Hotel Iris is just a novella about BDSM, though. It is definitely more than problematic erotica (cough, Fifty Shades) because the narrative and mounting tension and intrigue around the older man (who is never actually named, only called the translator; his profession) and his dead wife, and why the protagonist Mari desires him and the extreme sexual relationship they have together, raise so many questions. As a feminist, I found some parts hard to read because the border of consent seems blurred or ambiguous. It’s written in the first person, so Mari would describe the harsh punishment of the translator and extreme discomfort he puts her through, but then say she wanted nothing more. Also the age gap (17 – mid 60s?) seems fraught with problems. Power seems to be a major theme…not just sexual power, but the more subtle forms of manipulation that lie outside of this. I can’t decide what I thought of the ending, and whether Mari won or lost in the grand scheme of things…very ambiguous, and very dark.

I gave it five stars because I haven’t read anything like it before and I think Ogawa is a fantastic and skilled storyteller, and her prose is beautiful, even when describing debased things. She manages to incorporate the extraordinary and disturbing into realism, and the result is unsettling.

Blue is the Warmest Colour by Julie Maroh ★★★☆☆

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I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, having seen the film a few years ago and liking it, despite the very-obviously-directed-by-a-man, over-the-top porn-y sex scene. I was intrigued to see how the original graphic novel, written by a lesbian, compared.

I think the book is a lot more tragic in terms of both plot (Emma is reading Clementine’s diaries posthumously from the beginning) and in atmosphere – the colour palette is grey with spots of blue… although I guess this reiterates the title that blue is indeed the warmest colour in the book, ha ha. But, it did make me feel quite down. It’s hopeful in places, but really is just a doomed story of lesbian love, and that has become so much of a trope lately that queer women have started speaking out about it.

I didn’t really like Maroh’s drawing style, so that is why BITWC only gets three stars. I thought it was sketchy in a way that wasn’t my taste, and the facial expressions were often too exaggerated. However, I did think it was a poignant read and an accurate coming-out story. I just wish it was a bit less sorrowful and with less death.

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The ending to the film version of BITWC, which is a lot more hopeful, and less tragic.

I am also currently reading The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb, and Art In Nature by Tove Jansson, which I’ll hopefully finish next month!