In November, I read 11 books, bringing my count up to 109! I don’t think I will quite hit 120 by the end of December, but obviously I’ve done very well this year.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
A retelling of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, this novel takes place in Inverness, Scotland and focuses on the tense relationship between sisters Anthea (a scattered, unhappy idealist) and Imogen (an ambitious people-pleaser). Imogen has helped Anthea get a job at a local PR firm, but Anthea embarrasses Imogen at work by being uninterested and absent. When a local vandal with a message targets their office, Anthea ends up starting a relationship with this charming, non-binary activist, which Imogen struggles to accept. I think Smith’s writing is lovely and lyrical and I enjoy the feminist message of the book. In fact, I can’t find anything specific to criticize about this book, yet I just did not particularly connect to it. I feel the same way about Smith’s Autumn, which I reviewed positively in September – though I do think it’s an objectively good book that most people will enjoy, there is something about Smith’s writing that I think is simply not for me. But if this sounds interesting, by all means check it out.
Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson
Another modern retelling, this one (obviously) of Frankenstein. This one is a lot more complex than Girl Meets Boy, because Winterson takes us back to 1800s Italy with her take on the events that led to the writing of Frankenstein while also providing us with a modern story. The main story takes place in the contemporary US/UK and focuses on a young transgender doctor named Ry Shelley and their affair with Victor Stein, a leading AI researcher. Winterson grapples with gender, the proliferation of sex robots, and bodiless consciousness while also writing some very lush scenes in the historical portions of the novel. I love Jeanette Winterson and frequently find her work moving in a way that I can’t quite describe, but this one missed the mark for me. There was a lot going on and all the ideas prevented character and plot development. This one reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, with the exploration of sex robots and the satirical edge that felt cheap and unaccomplished.
Mr. Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo
Barry Walker, originally from Antigua, is a successful and wealthy real estate developer in London. At age seventy-four, he loves his adult daughters, struggles to bond with his teenage grandson, and has a lot of marital issues with his wife… because he is secretly gay, and has been in a committed relationship with his best friend Morris for sixty years. Barry’s wife, Carmel, has no idea, and though he has promised Morris he will leave her and live as an out gay man, the prospect terrifies him. Barry is a believable, flawed, fantastic character – self-assured yet insecure, outwardly sexist yet tender towards many women in his life. The cultural and religious forces that keep him closeted are vividly rendered, and I felt deeply sympathetic towards his struggles. This book is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, with a very satisfying ending. Bernardine Evaristo knocks it out of the park again! I can’t wait to check out more of her work.
Cherry by Nico Walker
Walker’s backstory is fascinating: a former medic in Iraq who returned to the US to become a bank robber to support the heroin addiction he developed to numb his PTSD, he wrote this novel from prison. (He is scheduled for release in about a year.) The novel is about a young medic in Iraq who returns to the US to become a bank robber to support the heroin addiction he develops to numb his PTSD. Imaginative! This is clearly not the work of an accomplished writer, which does lend the narrator an authentic voice. While I sympathized with his trauma, addiction, and desperation, I found the misogyny in the book hard to stomach. I think I wanted this to be a more pointed critique of the military industrial complex and the way governments and big pharma manufactured the opioid crisis, but it stopped short of that. I think a lot of people would like this, but I really didn’t enjoy the reading experience and I found myself wishing that Walker had just written a memoir.
Dark Days by James Baldwin
A Penguin Minis collection of three of Baldwin’s essays. He is simply an incomparable writer – clear, accomplished, and incisive beyond belief. I want to read more of his fiction and nonfiction, because everything of his I’ve read has been excellent.
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
A transgender researcher named Dr. Voth finds a manuscript that suggests new information about British folk heroes Jack Sheppard – a legendary thief and jailbreaker – and his lover Edgeworth Bess. Jack, it seems, is a trans man, while Bess is of South Asian origin. The novel consists of the historical manuscript mediated through Dr. Voth’s increasingly long and personal footnotes. This layered mediation of the past through the present is interesting. Rosenberg writes successfully about the euphoria of recognition, and this work is clearly a self-conscious intervention in the erasing tendencies of history. The use of anachronism was interesting and helped normalize the existence of trans/gender-nonconforming people in this historical context. There is something a bit self-congratulatory about it, and a lot of that has to do with the footnotes. I have yet to encounter a book that makes extensive use of footnotes as a quirky narrative feature that doesn’t feel at least a little bit smug. I mean, the footnotes at least made sense in terms of the narrative framing, and the fact that they took me out of the historical manuscript helped create that sense of the past and present connecting. That is to say, I get why they were used. It’s just not a device that appeals to me. I think there’s also a lot to say about applying modern ideas of gender and sexuality to the past – it’s a dangerous game! I think this is a cool novel that successfully grapples with many interesting concepts – but I don’t know if I actually enjoyed reading it.
Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue
This book pretty much does what it says on the tin, tracing different tropes of lesbian love throughout the history of (Western) literature. It’s a very cool and engaging history with some surprising examples. This was obviously a massive undertaking so I’m not surprised that Donoghue wasn’t able to explore non-Western literary traditions, but I would love to see some work done in that area as well. There also aren’t a lot of recent (i.e. twenty-first century) examples, I assume because these days lesbians are actually allowed to exist explicitly and not just subtextually. Donoghue’s academic background is clear, though this is an accessible popular text. This is an important work in making visible the histories that have been hidden from us.
Benefits by Zoë Fairbairns
This novel is unmistakably a product of 1970s second-wave feminism, for better and for worse. It’s a fascinating speculative look at how austerity programmes can be weaponized against women, and how men and women are unevenly affected by class issues. In the mid-1970s, a religious right wing British government cuts all public benefits except for one – the Benefit given to mothers. At the same time, journalist Lynn is trying to decide if she should have a baby while forming friendships with a group of feminists who live communally in an abandoned tower. As the novel takes us through the early-aughts, we see a dystopia where austerity is used to control women’s reproduction and real coffee is almost impossible to find. It’s possible to see a lot of the present in this fictionalized future.
Given that feminist dystopia seems to be having a moment, with about a book a second being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, I am rather surprised that this novel isn’t more widely-read and considered a classic of the genre. (I don’t think it’s even in print anymore – I had a hard time tracking it down!) It’s true that this particular imaginary world doesn’t really pay attention to the ways government policies might affect women of colour differently (although it is important to note that the cast of characters is not entirely white, and WoC play pivotal roles in the narrative), and there are some descriptions of skin colour that are a little fetishistic. But the attention to class and sexuality is impressive. Like The Handmaid’s Tale (come on, the comparison is inevitable), the dystopia of this novel is based on reproductive control of women – but in a very different way. I’ve never seen a dystopia pay such attention to bureaucratic structures. A very interesting novel – and one that still seems relevant and prescient though we’ve now lived through the decades it depicts.
Therapy by Stephen Grosz
This mini volume is made up of touching, thoughtful anecdotes about Grosz’s time as a psychoanalyst. I felt that some of these stories ended a bit too abruptly, but Grosz’s writing is fascinating, humane, and moving. A nice little book to read in an afternoon.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This was better-written and -conceived than a lot of modern feminist dystopias (and I do use that term loosely, because these days it seems more like a marketing term than an indication of political engagement.) The multiple character perspectives were juggled well, though inevitably some characters are more interesting than others. Margaret Atwood’s influence is clear here, both in terms of generic conventions and the manifestation of the cult. (While I’m not a huge fan of Atwood’s MaddAddam series, the way she invokes the religious group is very well-done.) The writing wasn’t incredible, but it also didn’t make me cringe. Personally, I think that the “speculation” in speculative fiction needs to be realistic and based on reality. The premise here – adolescent girls developing electric power – is more of a sci fi/fantasy concept that doesn’t really tell us anything about current social orders. I’m also not sure what I think about this book’s conclusions on power and gender roles. Physical power = political power? Physical power = cruelty? Women are only oppressed because we aren’t strong? The message was unclear, and, like a lot of modern “feminist dystopias”, pretty much apolitical. It didn’t seem to really say anything about society other than point out uneven power relations and ask “What if this asymmetry were reversed?” For me, a truly radical idea would be the abolition of gender hierarchies, not a reversal. But I’m probably asking too much of a mass-produced novel.
A Small Gathering of Bones by Patricia Powell
A relatively early work in the genre of AIDS fiction, this intriguing novella is set in late 1970s Jamaica. We follow a closeted couple – Dale and Nevin – and their friend Ian, who is becoming increasingly afflicted by a mysterious illness. The use of language here is very interesting – the words “gay”, “HIV”, and “AIDS” never grace the page, mirroring the repression of these characters. This is not an easy book to read – packed into its 137 pages is an unflinching look at the ways homophobia can manifest, including parental disownment and violence. Dale and Nevin’s relationship disintegrates painfully, mirroring the progression of Ian’s illness.
I think the question of the narrative voice is important here; we see the story from Dale’s perspective, meaning we never get a truly intimate look at Ian’s illness. A lot of AIDS literature denies us access to those who are ill, which creates a somewhat troubling position for the audience. I also noticed a level of pathologization of so-called “risky” behaviour, a discourse which has frequently been used to blame people with AIDS for their illness. The end of the novella also has uncomfortable implications. This book is old as I am, and written when the AIDS epidemic was still fairly new – it wasn’t until 1996 that HIV/AIDS began to decline, mostly due to treatment breakthroughs – and our understanding of the disease and the language we use to discuss it has evolved since then. That may explain certain things, but I still find myself unsettled! Though I believe this book was written with good intentions, and though it is a rich, dense, accomplished work of writing, I am uncomfortable with some of its political implications as it at once challenges and reifies a complex set of social norms.
I have found myself wondering about the future of this blog since I’m no longer particularly interested in writing about beauty products (as I’m sure you’ve noticed). I’ve started a bookstagram account which I encourage you to follow, as I imagine I’ll be shifting my reviews over there and probably just leaving this blog up for posterity and maybe the occasional post. My life has changed a lot in the five years since I started this blog, and now that I’m a PhD student I have to prioritize my time carefully. Writing this blog used to be a fun hobby, but it’s not something that brings me a lot of enjoyment these days. I’ve been sharing my thoughts online in some form or another for over half my life, so that won’t stop – I just find myself gravitating to and away from different platforms and formats over time. I want to leave myself the possibility of long-form blogging, but I also don’t want to commit myself to anything. I think I’ll do some year-end wrap-up posts as normal, and then… who knows!
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