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 | 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.