read in 2015

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.

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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: Drawing Blood

I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir Drawing Blood (out December 1st), and here are some thoughts, positive first, negative last:

drawing bloodOn traveling while introverted: I already mentioned this in a previous blog post, but this memoir told me that it’s okay to mostly observe, rather than actively interact with the world when traveling and living abroad.

On making art in general and more specifically, trying to make money while making art: In a way, Drawing Blood is not an easy book to read, because it is so honest about what it takes to make money while trying to become a an artist who can make money with her art. It is also honest about what it takes for a woman artist to do these things.  If Crabapple’s accounts of older men treating her as a sex object starting when she was still a child and warnings from people that traveling alone as a young woman is dangerous are shocking to you, you might be an alien from a happy planet where sexism has been eradicated (and we envy you). She talks about how a woman’s body does not belong to her, how it becomes a reason ‘she must be fetishized and confined’, how a lot of the world excludes women: ‘his was the public world, which is to say the male world, of bars, drugs, and easy camaraderie’. Molly Crabapple is precisely the woman the system aims to break: defiant, independent, eventually out of fucks to give.

The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picked-fenced land of generous collectors and 2.5 kids. But make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

On making art political:

I started drawing as a way to cope with people: to observe and record them, to understand them, charm them, or to keep them at arm’s length… When the world changed in 2011, I let my art change with it, expanding from nightclub walls to hotel suites and street protests. My drawings bled into the world. 

Art is political because art is a way for people to tell you and show you what their experiences are. Art is for displaying uncomfortable truths and is therefore used by marginalized, under-privileged, unjustly feared, and in general kicked around groups to both make themselves heard and possibly heal.

On being in artist in a more general sense:

Young artists must be arrogant so they don’t kill themselves.

Drawing Blood is about self-making. The evolution and development of an artist are on full display here, and Crabapple’s unerring dedication to her craft is palpable. In fact, if there is one definite way in which this book touched me, it’s in its ability to make me want to draw. A lot. I do not possess Crabapple’s monomania for drawing (or for anything, for that matter), but her memoir gives you a taste of what it’s like to be in love and in need of making art.

Crabapple will no doubt inspire a lot of people who think they could never be artists or make their living as artists, but here’s why she will also ruffle feathers (and she ruffled mine). Crabapple’s choice of words is not always, shall we say, agreeable. She is often just as graphic when describing things with words as she is when describing them with drawings. Her choice of words for Buck Angel’s top surgery is not sensitive. While I don’t particularly care about Buck Angel, I would never describe any transman’s top surgery in this way, so beware (and if he has read it and is okay with it, then Crabapple needs to get trans friends who are not Buck Angel).

Readings: They

It was stupidly busy here last week, what with a giant book fair, on the day of which I worked 15 and a half hours, an experience I’m not eager to repeat again any time soon.

Aftermath of said fair is still felt and being dealt with, so today is my only day till Thanksgiving that can be used for art-related pursuits. My goal is to write a bunch of stuff and then go to the Book Riot Read Harder book group. I’ve already had an altercation with a rogue can lid this morning and am now learning to live life temporarily left-handed, which did not prevent me from polishing one of the stories that got rejected in one place, but will be submitted to another, specifically to this. If you are a trans writer writing spec fiction, take a look, the deadline is December 1st.

Incidentally, Sigur Rós is excellent writing music.

But let’s move on to recent readings, specifically They by Sue Ellen Thompson. It wasn’t really on my radar until someone mentioned that the poet’s child was trans, and that a lot of poems in this book were about the poet dealing with her child’s identity.

I did not go into this hoping to like it or not, but the definite verdict is that I could not like it and in fact rather hated it. To me, the entire collection sounded like a long list of complaints by my own mother who denied and fought against my coming out for months (and in a sense, still does, but more passively). I hated the ‘daughter’-ing in the first part of the book, appalled and appalling turns of phrase like ‘what she’d become’. If I were to play a drinking game with this book, I would be drunk halfway through if I took a sip every time the word ‘daughter’ came up. Daughter. Daughter. DAUGHTER. It is an innocent and touching word, but I know how it can grate. How it can hurt.

The writing seemed whiny and pouty and self-absorbed. It gets increasingly hysterical as the collection goes on, the final part simply a litany of wrongs and ills:

uncertain what to call her

when speaking to my friends

(still with her business, really?).

The only time Thompson calls her child by the correct pronoun seems to be in the title (at some point it is mentioned that they/them are the preferred pronouns).

And finally, the problem I have with They is that Thompson, while describing her own reactions, is really telling her child’s story, making the collection feel offended and offensive, dismissive and erasing. It’s all bewilderment and bitterness at the fact that her child did not turn out the way she wished. I just hope that perhaps writing this collection was therapeutic, and she will finally be able to let go and let be.

 

And stylistically? Most of it reads like one poem, with the same rhythm, same turns of phrase, same same same.

After this disappointing poetry read, I am attempting to tackle my now ridiculously large ARC pile and see if there are any good things in there. How it has grown is beyond me, since I barely had a chance to look at galleys at work this week. Oh, and I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir (once again, when?), so maybe I will write about that.

Lists of books!

For those of you who like Lists of Things, I did some blog maintenance thing yesterday and updated my ‘Read in 2014‘ list and created ‘Read in 2015‘. Go see! They are sort of terrifying, aren’t they? How much free time do I really have?

If you want to know why I keep lists of things I read, it’s because I am one of those People Who Like Lists, because it’s fun, and because I tend to remember events in my life through books. A book can remind me where I was or what I was doing when I was reading it. I read Anthony Marra’s The Tsar Of Love and Techno while camping this summer. I read Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls while waiting for a plane to Toronto in January. I obviously went through some period this summer when I wanted to read only emotionally wrenching books, judging by this lineup:

  • Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs Of Children
  • J. M. Ledgard, Submergence
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Big Green Tent
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

All of these are very good, by the way. But not light.

Other reading trends:

1) There are some graphic novels I read and reread in a span of a few weeks. I am a dedicated comics rereader. A) they don’t take a long time and B) I like to binge on series in comics. I have my annual reread of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan whenever I start feeling too good about people.

2) There is way more poetry in 2015. Me reading poetry is something relatively new. There was an entire period in my life when I was convinced I could only read poetry in my native language. Now it’s more or less a staple of my reading diet.

3) More plays in 2015, also a new phenomenon.

4) There is way less speculative fiction in 2015. I had what I call ‘genre-fatigue’ for a few months (one of the reasons I stopped writing here). I could only take my sci-fi/fantasy in comics form.

5) Apparently I read Alex + Ada volume two, but not one? Doesn’t seem right.

6) I don’t list single-issue comics. It’s a personal preference.

7) I’ve read 192 books in 2014. Didn’t quite make it to 200. TOTAL FAILURE. Kidding.

So there you go. Lists. Now onwards to read 200 books this year!