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!

The Summer Book | Review

(A review I wrote in September 2015)

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Tove Jansson is mainly known for being the creator of the Moomin series, but as well as writing and illustrating children’s fiction and comics, she also wrote fiction for adults. The two of her novels that I have now read – The Summer Book and The True Deceiver – have both proved to be brilliant self-contained books, with less whimsy and more of the pronounced philosophical edge that Moomin only touches on.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did, or as much as other Tove Jansson I’ve read. But I did! It was very beautiful and funny and really enveloped me in the little world on the island, which is what good books should do. I think The Summer Book gives the same sort of escapism as the Moomin books (so I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys these); the isolation from the rest of society and the self-sufficiency that is somehow whimsical…but this book has more of a realism to it, of course.

I especially liked the chapter about the cats. Describing the animal’s personalities and Sophia’s frustrations with them was really funny and I related to it lots. I think Jansson is great at characterisation; the bluntness of Grandmother and the fleeting dramatic crises of Sophia are so real and I love how the characters bounce off each other. She is brilliant at writing the complexities of relationships.

The setting and it’s description is beautiful…there is something about islands that I will always be interested in. Jansson keeps up the description of the weather and wind constantly, but it is not boring; it seems important to the story, maybe because the characters’ lives are so entwined with the surrounding area and nature. The chapter with the storm was definitely the climax of the book, so atmospheric…

It is another book I have read recently describing summer, and it coming to an end (having recently finished Goodbye Tsugumi.) The ending seemed poignant and sad though it doesn’t have to be. Packing things up, anxiously trying not to forget anything, being prepared. But for what? She stays outside and watches the sea… I think the ending was beautiful and melancholy but maybe hopeful. It’s that strange kind of poignancy where you can’t tell whether it’s sad or not. I get that feeling when I go to the beach. Like time is running out and I must appreciate everything in that moment..and the enormity of everything in comparison to you and your life. Maybe The Summer Book is about time and endings as much as life.