Books read, October-December 2016

Posted on January 04, 2017 under Books

Well, I did make my goal of 25 books read in 2016. In fact, I read 7 books this quarter for a total of 29 in 2016. This still seems fairly pitiful to me, but it’s quite an improvement over the past few years. (I really did want to make it to 30, but it just wasn’t in the cards.) So here’s what I read between October and December…

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is an unavoidable media/cultural theorist if you study film/media studies/cultural studies, and so I’m quite familiar with his work and really enjoy it. I’d never read one of his books in full, and after reading the introduction of Convergence Culture for a class I took on Netflix (I know), I decided to read the whole thing. I finally got around to it in October in the hopes that it might be useful in my graduate research. Overall, I really enjoyed it – Jenkins lays out his theory of convergence culture using popular, accessible examples, such as Survivor, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. He writes very clearly, so although I’ve read his work primarily in academic settings (and although he’s an indispensable academic theorist), his work is totally accessible to a consumer market. I found his theories compelling and clearly-articulated and his case studies well-chosen and illuminating. I’d recommend Convergence Culture to anyone who’s interested in the current media landscape and how the roles of media producer and consumer are becoming blurred.

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

I was assigned Camera Lucida – as well as Mythologies, which I’ll get to – in my second year of university, and, of course, did not read them. In my defense, in 200-level classes professors go over the readings in such detail that they often render it unnecessary to actually read them while still getting their contents across quite thoroughly, so I’m familiar with quite a lot of Barthes’ theories without having actually read much of his work firsthand. Once again, I undertook to read the Barthes I’d ignored in anticipation of my graduate studies. Camera Lucida was assigned in perhaps the best undergraduate class I ever took, and his theory of the punctum has stuck with me since then. Reading the entirety of Camera Lucida was a great experience – the first half of the book was especially resonant in elucidating the semiotics and poetics of the still image. I could have done with a bit less of Barthes’ famed mooning over his dead mother in the second half, but overall I found Camera Lucida a great read, and one which I expect will be of use to me in the future.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I do love my long-winded books, don’t I?! The Luminaries comes in at a whopping 832 pages, making it the longest book I read in 2016. I absolutely loved it – it was a rip roaring yarn of a Victorian pastiche with an interesting structure that was enjoyable the whole way through. I loved the characters, I loved the plot, I loved everything about it.

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Mythologies is a study of myth, which Barthes defines as a type of speech which presents ideology as natural and ahistoric. The essays in this book that were good were really good – relevant, incisive, delightfully interesting. And the conceptual framework – the essay “Myth Today” – is fantastic and essential reading for those interested in semiotics. Unfortunately I found that there was a significant chunk of essays which didn’t hold my attention or feel relevant – I don’t live in 1950s France, and so I don’t feel that the entire book was resonant. “Myth Today” and a wide selection of Barthes’ essays about everyday objects and phenomenons are great, but the whole book doesn’t seem like essential reading in my own context.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This is a fictionalized account of the December 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley. It’s a dense book, told from many different perspectives, much of it written in Jamaican Creole, and with an interesting chronological structure. (It spans thirty years, but is only told one day at a time – that is, it takes place on December 3, 1976, February 15, 1979, August 14, 1985…) It is also a very dark and disturbing book and I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart – it starts off deeply, unremittingly violent and does not let up. James’ use of language is expert and the ripple effect plot and exploration of Western imperialism on the political and social climate of Jamaica are fascinating. It’s very broad thematically; it’s about music, imperialism, diaspora, gender roles, gang violence, and more. I found some characters and points of view more interesting than others. I also found that the structure – while ambitious – didn’t quite work, though it came close. I’d still recommend this book overall, but it’s not without its flaws and it’s an undertaking to read.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir poignantly weaves together the story of her father’s suicide shortly after coming out and her own emerging lesbian feminist identity. Her writing is sharp-witted and at times heartwrenching, her illustrations are evocative, and the book truly is “tragicomic”. There are a lot of interesting details hidden in the deceptively simple illustrations – if you read this one, definitely keep an eye on what the characters are reading. I found Fun Home incredibly resonant and touching and I think it’s a must-read lesbian lit pick.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

My second Pulitzer winner of the year! The Sympathizer is the confession of a Vietnamese Communist double agent written while in a prison camp. Our narrator is half-French, half-Vietnamese. He went to university in California and eventually moved back to Los Angeles as an adult as a refugee after the evacuation of Saigon in the mid-1970s. I adored Nguyen’s writing style and use of language, and I thought the story itself was incredibly interesting, readable, and fast-paced. The book is satirical and brings up a lot of interesting questions and ideas. Not only is it simply an enjoyable read, it’s also incredibly thought-provoking, grappling with the question of representation, American military imperialism, the dangers of inaction, and hybrid identity. I’d certainly recommend this one if you’re interested in any of those topics and looking for a compelling, incisive novel.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This was the first book by Toni Morrison that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It’s about a woman who escapes slavery in Kentucky and her life eighteen years later when the ghost of her dead baby comes back to – literally – haunt her. It’s a very powerful and heavy story, but incredibly readable and sharply-written. The characters are incredibly interesting and the descriptions of slavery and other forms of violence are incredibly visceral and poignant. This novel has a lot of layers and I think occupies a lot of genres simultaneously: there are elements of magical realism and horror as well as historical fiction. Either way, it’s forceful as hell.

A breakdown of the books I read:

Fiction: 19
Non-fiction: 10
Written by women: 16
Written by men: 13
Written by people of colour: 9
Written by LGBT people: 4 (to my knowledge)
Written by white men: 9
Written by Canadians: 6

Overall, I’d say this was a good year for reading. I think I’ve become quite good at discerning what types of books I’ll enjoy, and there was nothing I truly disliked this year, just a few things that I found a bit disappointing or hard to get into. The lowest rating I gave on Goodreads in 2016 was three stars, which speaks to the quality of the books I read this year! I’m also surprised that 1/3 of the books I read in 2016 were non-fiction, since I’m really more of a fiction reader. Some of those were for school but most were on my own time. I’ll continue to read non-fiction as it piques my interest in 2017, but I’m guessing my ratio will be a lot lower this year as most of the stuff on my to-read list is fiction.

Books read, July to September 2016

Posted on September 27, 2016 under Books

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Last time around I was hoping to beat that quarter’s total of four books read, and I did that quite handily. I read four by the end of August and a total of eight between July and September. I’m now only four books away from my 2016 goal of 25. I have six books in my to-read pile, so I’m hoping to get through at least that by 2017! Here’s what I read this quarter…

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ahh, I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing and admire her so greatly as a person. Americanah was one of my favourites of 2015, and Half of a Yellow Sun promises to be at the top of my 2016 list. It’s about Biafra’s attempt to create an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s and the effects of the tumult on the lives of five main characters. Adichie’s writing is gorgeous, her characters unbelievably well-drawn, and the tension tangible. I’m absolutely going to be picking up Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, because I’ve heard it’s wonderful as well.

We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

I didn’t even know this book existed until I was poking around my favourite local independent bookstore and saw it. “That looks good!” I said to my mom. I read the blurb and then said, “I’m going to buy it.” It’s about the commodification and depoliticization of feminism that has come as a direct result of the popularization of the movement, a topic which I am very interested in. I thought it was very well-written and engaging, with timely pop culture examples that I’d expect of the co-founder of Bitch magazine. I really wish it had taken a more focused Marxist approach (I mean, the topic is begging for it, really), but if anyone is interested in an intelligent critique of modern feminism from a self-identified feminist I’d totally recommend this.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

It’s funny to me that nine years ago when Deathly Hallows came out we were all begging JKR for more, and now that she is giving us more, we’re all begging her to stop. The Cursed Child was okay, to me. Good for what it is, even. Maybe I’m being generous because I imagine that it would be spectacular to see, though reading the script is admittedly less so. The actual mechanisms and structure of the plot are clever and certainly smack of JKR’s involvement.

However, the plot itself seems a bit silly to me: it’s essentially a nostalgia tour, as Harry’s youngest son revisits several seminal moments from the original series and then we explore how the entire wizarding world would be changed forever if the events had not happened in the same way. This makes me question who the play is for. Surely not for devoted fans, as there’s not much new? But it relies so heavily on the established Harry Potter mythology that I can’t see it attracting a new generation of fans, either. I thought the dialogue was bad and some of the characterization was off. I’m sorry, I’ve read the original series four million times, I will never accept that Ron was drunk during his wedding vows, however flawed he may be! That said, I did like the character of Scorpius, and Albus’s character growth was nice.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad, I just don’t really get why it exists. And I think it might be time to retire Harry Potter. I say that as someone who has been an aggressive HP fan since 2000.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I wanted to pick up The Secret History since it’s very widely talked about and I liked The Goldfinch, but Chapters didn’t have it so I settled for Tartt’s second novel, which is mostly not talked about.

Now, if you’re like me and you read the summary on the back of the book and think, “Cool! A mystery about a murdered little boy set in the South! This sounds like literary Gillian Flynn!”, then you will be disappointed. Because the book is not really about Robin Cleve Dufresnes’s murder, and you will probably get to page 400 or so and think, “So, I’m definitely not going to find out who killed him.” Which, I think, would be fine had the blurb not very much made it seem like it was a regular murder mystery.

No. It is not. It is a book that is peripherally about his murder and more directly about his formerly well-to-do, dysfunctional but loving Southern family. The “main” plot – that is, his twelve-year-old sister Harriet’s investigation into his murder – frequently gives way to classic Donna Tartt meandering. Very well-written meandering, but meandering all the same. Which, I think, is fine, because that’s what this book is. It is not a quick, snappy murder mystery with a twist ending. It’s a long, descriptive portrait of a family shaken by a death that they are too repressed to acknowledge healthily. I found it enjoyable when I viewed it that way and let go of the feeling that I had been bait and switched. That said – and I didn’t feel this way about The Goldfinch – I do think this book could have benefited from a bit of editing.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I finished The Little Friend and immediately found The Secret History at aforementioned local independent bookstore, who never lets me down. Having read all three of Tartt’s novels within the past few months, I think I can pretty fairly say that this one was my favourite, although I enjoyed all three with some fairly minor reservations. The Secret History is by no means a quick-paced thriller (I mean, it’s 560 pages long), but it replicates a lot of the psychological effects of a thriller and is a lot more compulsively readable than her other two novels. However, anyone who already knows they don’t like Tartt’s writing style (that is, very descriptive, prone to wandering, potentially 100 pages longer than strictly necessary) will probably have the same issues with this one. Personally those things don’t bother me greatly with her books specifically, so I really liked The Secret History, its dark psychology, and its inversion of the “whodunnit” question into “whydtheydoit” and “willtheygetcaught”.

Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

I liked this a lot, with some reservations. Definitely fascinating and unique in concept if imperfect in execution.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This book is a series of essays about the semiotics of images. Four of the essays are text- and image-based and three use images only. Despite the fact that it was published in 1972, it didn’t feel dated to me at all, nor did it feel too academic to be accessible. I read it quickly and easily. Most of the arguments were not particularly innovative or nuanced, but they were all very well-articulated in clear language. My favourite essay, probably not surprisingly, was the third overall (and second text essay), about how women in art are positioned as the surveyed while men are the surveyors. Like I said, not exactly a unique argument, but interesting nonetheless. I also liked the essay on oil paintings as a symbol of capitalist acquisition and the one about how advertisements hail their viewers. This is pretty easy reading for what it is, but I’d only recommend it to someone who already has an interest or background in semiotics since it’s not exactly consumer non-fiction.

The Wonder by Emma Donaghue

I loved Room when I read it back in 2011 and liked Hood okay. The concept for The Wonder – an eleven-year-old girl in 1850s Ireland who has apparently survived not eating a bite in four months – intrigued me, so I bought it right away and tore through it in one sitting. I absolutely loved it. There isn’t much action for a lot of the book, but the psychological component kept me turning the pages. The story is told from the perspective of Lib Wright, a nurse hired by a committee of townspeople to keep watch over Anna O’Donnell to determine whether she is a fraud, and I loved her character. She was very no-nonsense on the surface but deeply empathetic and a fiercely moral person. And as the book careens towards it conclusion, it truly felt high-stakes, both in terms of the plot and human emotion. A fascinating look at religious fanaticism, the deadly effects of sexism, and how inaction can be akin to complicity. I can’t think of a single thing I’d change about it.

P.S. The Wonder is not included in the picture because I’ve lent it to my mom. I know you were all dying to know…

Book Review: Women in Clothes

Posted on September 10, 2016 under Books

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I first heard about Women in Clothes, a compilation text with a whopping 642 contributors, when it released in the fall of 2014. I was immediately interested in it; as I’ve established on my blog, I’m very interested in exploring the importance of everyday things in people’s lives, especially if they’re considered banal. But the price tag put me off it, as did the fact that I was living in Scotland at the time and didn’t want a 500-page book to transport back to Canada in the spring.

This past fall, I mentioned to my mom that I was interested in the book. I was truly surprised to find it under the Christmas tree! For years I’ve just told my parents what I want for Christmas and am not surprised, but my mom usually manages to sneak something in. I was delighted by this surprise, and, of course, promptly let the book sit on my shelf for nine months. (It’s big, I was in school, you know the drill.)

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I finally got around to reading it and I finally have some thoughts to share! Firstly, it’s undeniably a beautiful book. I love the cover design, the thick paper, the typography, and the visual components. It’s truly an aesthetically-pleasing book, which makes sense given its subject matter.

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I was expecting the book to essentially to be a whole lot of surveys, one after the other. And while the survey questions the authors concocted made up the meat of the book, its form is actually much more haphazard than that. For example, opening it up randomly to page 120, I find a visual component, followed by a personal essay (“What I Wore To Fall in Love”), a mini compilation of quick responses to a single survey question, another visual component, an interview between a woman and her adult son… and so on. The book also contains poems, one-off visual projects (such as a series of photographs of six women wearing each other’s signature outfits), and charts. This structure really worked for me, as it kept the book fresh, always interesting, and very readable. I’d expected to read a few pages of this in between other books, finishing it over the course of a month or so, but I read it all in two days.

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I liked that there were women of different cultural backgrounds and ages surveyed. There were immigrant (or first generation American/Canadian) stories and even a few features on garment factory workers. There were a few trans women featured, a fashion designer, a woman who wears the same dress every day. The book is fairly geocentric; the authors are from New York and Toronto, and obviously they recruited from within their circles, so the Northeastern US and Montreal/Toronto demographics are arguably over-represented. There were a few women interviewed who live in other countries (Poland, Egypt), but most were North American. Many of the survey respondents were also writers or other creative-types. I understand this, on the one hand – it’s easy to believe that creatives are more likely to care about self-presentation, and the writers had very lucid and lovely words about their clothes and styles. But I can’t help but think that it would have been more fascinating to have a bit more representation from the everyday woman to complement the very unusual women who were featured. (And, yes, it did seem like the women skewed upper middle class at least; designer brands were name-dropped quite frequently.)

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I will say that although there were a fair amount of cultural backgrounds represented, the book did skew quite white overall. Sometimes it was a bit tone-deaf. A Guardian review points out that “there is an entire section about what women say when they get their hair braided, featuring nine photographs of white women in various stages of hair-braided repose. This might have been a good place to include a woman from a different race – say, a black woman, for whom a relationship with braided hair is deeply intrinsic, and actually interesting.”

(Also, not related to race, but Lena Dunham saying that she likes to dress as a “new lesbian” made me roll my eyes, but everything Lena Dunham does has that effect on me, so.)

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Although I’d say that the book had a fairly Western liberal feminist perspective overall, I appreciate the inclusion of “outsider” voices. One of my favourite pieces was “I Do Care About Your Party” by Umm Adam, a Muslim woman who argues that “We don’t need to do anything to our body to make it look beautiful.” I don’t fully agree with her entire essay, but it’s a thought-provoking piece, especially her conclusion that “I feel a sense of freedom that I do not have that burden on me, of making myself attractive to others all the time.”

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This is not necessarily a book for someone looking to develop a sense of style, although you may find inspiration in how others approach getting dressed. More than anything, it’s an almost sociological text (though definitely not at an academic level, obviously). And I just really appreciate intelligent, thoughtful approaches to “women’s interest”-type things, that treat them as worthy of investigation and conversation. Women’s appearances are such a fraught area, and I like that there are texts coming out that approach this topic compassionately and intelligently. As I said, I do think that this is a pretty liberal feminist perspective (in that most of the women spoke of clothes in terms of empowerment and personal identity, and there was very little time spent on the disempowerment of women through emphasizing and policing appearance), but I really like how eloquently a “frivolous” topic was presented. It made me think about my own (practically nonexistent) style and how I’d answer some of the survey questions, which I liked.

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Some of the pieces are better than others. Some of this is just personal preference: not everything will speak to everyone, and that’s why it’s cool that so many women were featured. Some of the pieces seemed only marginally related to fashion (“What I Wore To Fall In Love”, mentioned earlier, is, not shockingly, more of a romantic story than one about clothes.)

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Some of my favourite features:

  • Mothers as Others, in which women present photos of their mothers from before they had children and talk about their lives and styles.
  • Maybe A Lot Of People Don’t Do This, an essay by Ly Ky Tran, whose Vietnamese immigrant family created clothing out of their NYC apartment for low wages.
  • A Map Of My Floor, in which the authors map out clothing items they’ve tried on and discarded for a specific event.
  • The Surfer Is Nothing Without The Wave, an interview with an art historian which is one of the most cerebral pieces in the book. It veers on pretentious, but I can’t help but love the phrase “May I quote Gilles Deleuze, pretentiously?” and wish that my peers in my film classes had asked that before quoting Deleuze, pretentiously and usually irrelevantly.
  • The Pink Purse, an essay by Emily Gould. She recounts saving up to buy a pink Marc Jacobs purse, which she donated six years later because it was impractical and hadn’t held up well. It’s a story of excitement followed by buyer’s remorse which I think anyone can relate to – though luckily the objects of my remorse have never been quite so expensive.
  • Clothes on the Ground, a series of fascinating profiles of garment workers in Cambodia, their working conditions, and the clothing they buy and wear.
  • This Person Is A Robot, in which one of the authors goes with a scent scientist to a coat check in New York and smell people’s coats. It’s funny and silly and a good representation of the weird one-off features that I like in this book.
  • What I Spent, a six-month diary of what a magazine employee spent on clothes (including many returns and regrets). It’s actually quite interesting and well-written.
  • Put On A Tux And Go, a feature on dance costumes and how they’re chosen.
  • A French Girl Hoeing, an interview with a farmer who’s interested in fashion. Unexpected and totally fascinating!

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I think this is one of those books that either appeals or doesn’t appeal to each individual. I’ve read some negative reviews of it and I understand why people wouldn’t like it. Some of the pieces are not that interesting or compelling and some approach or fully descend into pretentious navel-gazing territory. But the overall mission and impact of the book is one that certainly appeals to me.