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

audre lorde 1.jpeg

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.

9e6202acd9fc74070b1132ec98ad5b6f

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.

pond smelt 2.jpg

 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

witch light.jpg

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.

glencoe.jpg

Honorable mentions

I would be remissed if I didn’t mention these other great reads of 2017.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 | 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.

paper

2016 in Books | February

IMG_8687

This month I didn’t manage to read as much as I’d liked, due to a looming dissertation deadline (I am writing this a bit late, and have since finished — hooray!) I did manage to get through two Tove Jansson books though, using them as lovely Finnish escapism from the pressures of academia.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

Reading Tove Jansson’s writing makes me want to be a writer. When I read her prose I can tell how much her childhood, being around her artist parents, and adventures on the Finnish archipelago affected her. This book is a lot of beautiful and simple short stories. My favourite was The Squirrel, towards the end of the book. It features a writer living temporarily on an island by herself, and her peace (?) is disturbed when a squirrel drifts onto the island and seeks shelter there. I thought Jansson conveyed the anxieties of isolation and the rituals it produced really well. The protagonist of this story reminded me of the neurotic Fillyjonk character from the Moomin tales!

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson ★★★★☆

This Moomin book surprised me! This year I am aiming to read all the Moomin books I
haven’t read yet, and this was first up on my list. I expected it to be lighthearted, like Moominsummer Madness, but it definitely had a deeper, darker tumblr_m3xajufmhl1qib250o1_500tone,
which reflected on themes of (again) isolation – both physical and emotional. Tove really likes writing about lonely islands! It was interesting reading about how the different characters’ neuroses affect them as their time on the island wears on – Moominpappa becomes absorbed in his work, Moominmamma uses painting and gardening as escapism and longing for home, and Moomin tries to make a nest in the undergrowth of the island. Jansson’s stories, even though they are written for children, often have a melancholy undertone.

Moominpappa at Sea also features The Groke, a gigantic creature who has been described as the “personification of Nordic gloom”. I really like her though – everybody is afraid of her because she freezes everything she touches, but she isn’t malicious; she just wants to be warm. At one point she does a dance for Moomintroll which I found really amusing, and the part near the beginning where she “flies” across the sea by freezing it was a really beautiful and strange idea.

New Year’s Reading

IMG_7436

This Christmas I was lucky enough to receive NINE books from family and my partner! Six of these I had asked for or hinted at, but three were surprises.

The books I asked for included three Tove Jansson titles: A Winter Book, Art in Nature, and Moominpappa at Sea. I really wanted to read the first two after enjoying The Summer Book so much [link to my review] so hopefully they won’t disappoint. Moominpappa at Sea is one of the (few!) Moomin books I haven’t read yet. If you haven’t guessed, I am pretty much completely obsessed with Tove Jansson and the Moomins.

I also asked for Kinshu: Autumn Brocade which I have now started reading. It was recommended to me by the Goodreads app, related to some Banana Yoshimoto books. I’m hoping this book will be somewhat similar in style, and not just recommended because they are both contemporary Japanese authors!

Art & Fear is a kind of creative self-help book (that makes it sound awful, sorry) about the ‘perils and rewards of art-making.’As a fine art undergraduate, I am frequently plagued with what me and my friends call ‘art crises’ and we have to counsel each other back into confidence, so hopefully this book will come in handy for alleviating such fears. Being a full time art student is a very emotional and intense experience – maybe because what you make is so tied up with who you are (even though the university tells you to separate this.)

I also happily received a book I have been wanting to read for years – Blue Is The Warmest Color. I have watched the film adaptation several times, and while it is problematic (let’s just say: lesbian sex scenes should probably not be directed by a straight man…) I enjoyed it, and am intrigued to see how the original graphic novel differs. I have heard from a few people that it is ‘better’, not least because it is a story about queer women, written by a queer woman. So, I am really excited to see what it has to offer, and I am growing to like graphic novels as a medium more and more.

On that note, one of the surprises I received was also a graphic novel: Lost At Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I am a big fan of Scott Pilgrim so this is a perfect present (thank you Faye). I also received two books I hadn’t previously heard of: Station Eleven and Wolf Winter. I am really excited to get stuck in and devour all these books over the next few months. Stay tuned for reviews and ‘The Month in Books’ at the end of January!

The Summer Book | Review

(A review I wrote in September 2015)

the_summer_book

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.