reading in 2015

Readings: Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

I started my vacation with a glass of wine, some Beatles’ songs (a break from Hamilton on never-ending loop), and a reread of Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. I was working on the book floor for two days before Christmas, and in that time, I sold this book to two people, one friend and one customer. If I could sell it to everyone who came in through the door, I would.

When I was just coming out, my friend told me to read McBee’s column in the Rumpus called ‘Self-Made Man’. McBee writes a lot about masculinity and what it means to be a man, something that has always been my interest in and out of the context of trans experience. I pay a lot of attention to how men behave and think and how they are made to behave and think.

DEUG7991Thoughts on masculinity aside, McBee is a powerful writer. His sentences are so vivid, it’s like he is writing directly on your eyeballs, or perhaps directly on your brain. I read Man Alive in one sitting, unable to move, unable to leave the couch. I am glad it’s fairly short, because my bladder would not have been able to last for more than 170 pages.

At the time (I read Man Alive early in 2014, before its publication), I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I was not yet on T, and while I wanted to be on T, I also didn’t know if I would like the change. It wasn’t the idea of sticking myself with needles, or being on hormones for the rest of my life. I was just always a fan of status quo and did not like to change anything, even if said change was going to save my life.

I found the same kind of uncertainty in the pages of McBee’s book, and I found answers. There were trans memoirs that helped me realize I was trans. There were trans memoirs that helped me come out. And then there was Man Alive, which described precisely how I felt and finally placed me where I wanted to be in the space-time continuum that my clusterfuck of life had become at that point. McBee and I came from different backgrounds and had different families, and our reasons for postponing our transitions were different, but there was a similarity of thought and feeling somewhere in both our cores.

…and I knew there wouldn’t be a divine intervention, no right time, no sign that testosterone would make me a good man, no test to confirm that I would be happier, or more whole.

After I came out to my closest friends, I remember crying a few times when my heart was full of both pain and hope: the time when I saw myself in a mirror wearing a binder, and it looked so right; the time when I realized I had to leave my family and live as someone I had always been on the inside; and the time when I read Man Alive and knew I had made the right choice, even if it took me more than thirty years.

In the meantime, the twin man in the mirror was growing more solid while my current, softer face became more and more transparent. I knew which body was a ghost.

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Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

200 books

I hit 200 books this week. Once the year is over, I am going to look at some stats since everything is neatly saved in a spreadsheet (yes, I am that person).

Another retail year is done, and now that we have sold ALL THE BOOKS, I am taking some time off right after Christmas. I am in the perfect reading groove for vacation — I want to read all my galleys and advance copies, now neatly organized by date of publication. Mostly I am hoping to type some intelligible words and perhaps complete one or two stories. It’s going to be rainy and miserable, so there should be some productive time. There will be a couple of museum visits. Star Wars. It will be great.

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

Behold my 2015 book list

Here in our nation’s capital the weather has taken a turn for early fall digits, with 70 degrees on Saturday (21C for those of you in the rest of the world). People were walking around in shorts. I was reading outside on the grass.

If you are wondering how widespread the year-end book ranking is, take a look at this aggregated list. Basically everyone, including the Obamas, is making best of 2015 lists. Some of those are odd. ‘Best AP calculus books’? Nothing says ‘happy holidays’ like ‘I hope you don’t fail a test’. Some are important and amazing, like ‘Overlooked books by women’.

Well, I am going to be boring and confine my choices to top few. Because guilt and free books propel my reading habits, most of what I’ve read this year was actually published this year.

Reading trends in 2015:

  • More graphic novels/comics, and definitely more comics in floppy/single issue form.
  • More YA than last year. It’s not a lot, but I didn’t read any YA in 2014 at all.
  • More mainstream fiction, with genre being confined mostly to graphic novel form.
  • More audiobooks, by which I mean ‘any at all’.
  • More poetry, which is once again ‘any at all’.

biggreententSo here we go, the most amazing books I’ve read this year are (in genre order):

  1. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life. What a hard book. What an astonishing book. I will probably never read it again, but I am absolutely certain I’m a better human and a better reader after this book.
  2. Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children. This book was strangely overlooked by every award list in the world, for reasons that elude me.
  3. Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent – cheating a bit here, since it was published in Russian in 2010. For all your sprawling modern Russian novel needs.
  4. Kevin Barry, Beatlebone – I talk about it here. 
  5. Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown

SorcererI feel like I went full literary prize committee here, with 3 out of 5 being ‘serious’, emotionally intense books.

Poetry:

  1. Kate Tempest, Hold Your Own

Non-fiction:

  1. Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire
  2. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
  4. Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write

Fascinating, they are all essays. Not sure what that says about my non-fiction reading.

Graphic novels/comix:

  1. Warren Ellis, Trees (trade exists)
  2. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Wicked + The Divine: Fandemonium (I thought the first volume was pretty amazing, this one is even better)
  3. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet (yassss! out in trade)
  4. Noelle Stevenson, Nimona (if you like your comics standalone)

Tbitchplanethere is some really good stuff out in single issues as well: 8house: Arclight by Brandon Graham and a bunch of other people; The Spire by Simon Spurrier, Carlos Magno, and Jeff Stokely, Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chang, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.

And finally, in the ‘Did I Read The Same Book?’ category we have Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. So many people loved it, so many award committees thought it was amazing. I had to give up after 70 pages.

If you want to see the complete list of books I’ve read this year, here’s the page.

Readings: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

First of all, something I’ve been waiting for years now has happened – LibraryThing has an app now. There goes my evening. You can take a look at my currently catalogued books here (I used to have a different account there, but had to switch due to separation and library division, and so I am quite behind on book scanning. C’est la vie.). What I like about LibraryThing is the overwhelming amount of tagging and classifying one can do. It’s so nerdy.
VKBB9317.jpgBut let’s move on to recent reads. My affair with strange and weird is in full swing, and Beatlebone is so strange and weird, it’s in its own category. First of all, Kevin Barry is a wizard and I want to eat his words with a spoon. Let’s look at few examples:

A street gang of sheep appear — like teddy boys bedraggled in rain, dequiffed in mist…

Or how about this one:

He’s been coming loose of himself.

And finally this:

… and he saw at once an island in his mind.

Windfucked, seabeaten.

WINDFUCKED. Yes. I’ve been to one part of the world described in this book, and it is windfucked indeed. One gets the feeling that Barry is on his own language planet, but he can communicate with us in a way that tricks us into thinking we speak his language. The City of Bohane is even more of a mindbender in this way. Try it if you’re brave.

Second, this is historical fiction about John Lennon. How many novels with John fucking Lennon as a main character do you know? And such perfect ones, where he is so alive and so, well, John. I’m sorry, my Beatles fan roots are showing, but this book just fills me with nostalgic glee. Barry hits so many right, um, notes.

There is an odd interlude in the midst of it, and it tells the story of Barry’s own researches into Lennon buying a small island off the coast of Ireland and going there via Achill Island. I’ve seen some people complain how this interlude ruins the pacing, but for me it was just an amazing bit of geeking out on Barry’s part.

And so in short, it is brilliant, but much like The City of Bohane, it is a hard sell. It’s largely stream-of-consciousness, there is no particular plot (the entire plot is that Lennon bought this tiny island in the 60s and is now trying to get to it in 1978 without a retinue of paparazzi), everything is windfucked and cold and kind of bleak and at times just plain psychotic. Have I sold you on it yet? You see my problem.

But the language, the language. I just can’t get over it. That alone is worth the price of admission. And if you’re familiar with Beatles/Lennon lyrics, you will find some delightful bits inside.

 

Readings: Theodora Goss and the wonderfully strange

Here in our nation’s capital we are heading into that time of the year when it’s already dark at 4:30, the evenings are interminable, and one can barely get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t get a lot of snow, so winter is essentially a bleak parade of cold and disgusting days. They aren’t cold enough for fur hats and multiple layers, but they are too cold for anything more vigorous than drinking wine and reading under blankets.

It’s also the time of the year when I feel like reading something weird and strange. The problem with weird is that it is a spectrum, and it’s not always clear where on it the exact weird you need lies. Do I feel like Jeff VanDermeer-style weird? John M. Harrison? Catherynne M. Valente?

Occasionally one feels like finding something that could be described as ‘wonderfully strange’. I guess that’s what I needed, and I eventually found it in a book I bought a year ago on a whim. It’s a collection of stories by Theodora Goss called In the Forest of Forgetting.

DNOA4910The first story in the collection is a retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, and while I am normally not very much into fairy tale retellings (I like them when they are well-done, but I do not seek them out), this one was great. The second story pretty much hit the ‘weird’ I had been seeking, and so I by the time I read the incredibly beautiful third story, I was thoroughly in love with Theodora Goss and her wonderfully strange tales.

Short stories are my wavelength right now, mostly because I’m writing my own and I need to read other people’s to learn from and be inspired. I am trying to write every day, and I am hacking my brain by using Habitica to do this, because apparently doing tasks for fake gold works. The next step is to also draw every day. I don’t think it’s possible to have a more than full-time job, write, draw, read, and also get enough sleep, so something has to give. I’d like to hope it’s not sleep.

Incidentally, my next read on the ‘weird’ stack is John M. Harrison’s Light. I know a couple of people in my blog feed have been reading Harrison’s stuff, so let me join the collective subconscious that is obviously hungering for something truly odd this time.