Books read, April-June 2016

Posted on June 30, 2016 under Books

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I am pretty embarrassed to say that I fell down on the job of reading this quarter. I blame it on two things. First, most of April was eaten up by the end of my undergraduate career, when I barely had free time to breathe, let alone to read entire books. Then, no sooner had I finished my degree than I started back at work. I find it hard to get into a routine with shift work, and often I feel so tired by the end of eight hours on my feet that I want to do less intellectually-stimulating things than read. But June brought a renewed interest in reading, and I’m hoping that going forward I’ll be able to build in more time for it. Here’s what I’ve read over the past three months:

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

I had very high hopes for this book, but I just didn’t love it. It’s a quick read (I read it in one sitting on the Megabus back to Toronto), and the writing is nice, but the stories themselves were very forgettable to me. None of the characters were at all likeable, a fact which doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book, but which really got in the way this time. The main character is just so terrible. The female characters are all extremely shallow. Some parts of the book were very moving, and some stories were better than others, but overall I felt disappointed and strangely unmoved.

(I donated this book to Valu Village awhile ago, so it’s not pictured above.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I bought The Goldfinch in August and finally read it in mid-June. It’s certainly a long one, but I was never bored by it unlike a lot of people I know. I loved the writing, the story, the characters. It is a bit slow, but I enjoy a meandering story when it’s done right. I’m glad I saved this book until I had the time to read it slowly and appreciate it.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects is, to me, the most disturbing of Flynn’s three novels, and it is not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed her writing (as always) and the trademark Gillian Flynn twist at the end. This is my least favourite of her novels, but I still really liked it. This is an example to me of a novel where unlikeable, bizarre characters actually enhanced my enjoyment. The ending wasn’t too great, but I always find Flynn’s conclusions a bit anti-climactic.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I probably haven’t mentioned this on my blog before, but I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I read Slaughterhouse-Five my senior year of high school and since then have been picking up his books whenever I can. (That’s not that often, because bookstores always seem to stock the most popular titles, all of which I already own!) The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of my favourites – I loved the usual dry, satirical exploration of truth, luck, religion, and the meaning of life, and the revelation at the end is hilarious and comes together so well. Definitely up there with Bluebeard and Slaughterhouse-Five in my own personal Vonnegut ranking!

I currently have four unread books sitting on my shelf (Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins; Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; The Little Friend by Donna Tartt), so I’ll be working through those next. Plus I have a huge list of books I’m interested in, so, you know, I should be able to scrape together a slightly larger selection at the end of next quarter. I’ve read 12 books this year so far, so I’m pretty much on pace for my 25 book goal in 2016. Now that I’m back in the swing of things I’m hoping to do a bit better than that, even.

Books read, January-March 2016

Posted on March 31, 2016 under Books

Note: I’ve used affiliate links in this post.

I thought I’d start doing quarterly posts about the books I’ve read in my attempt to reach my goal of 25 for the year. Although this semester has been incredibly busy for me, so far I do remain on track, having finished 8 books so far this year. I’m hoping to pick up my pace over the summer – I’m really doing all I can at the moment; I keep telling people who ask me if I’ve seen the latest episode of a television show or a newly-released movie that I don’t have time for fun at the moment. I’m coming down the home stretch, though: in less than 3 weeks, I will be finished my degree.

Onto the books! These will be presented in order of when I finished them. This does not include any short stories, though I have probably read about ten this year so far.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

This is more of a survey course with 250 students and two TAs type book than an in depth seminar of 20 students book, but it is fantastic for what it is: well-researched, beautifully-presented, and absolutely brimming with Lisa Eldridge’s passion for makeup. I reviewed it in full in January.

Marx for Beginners by Rius

This is a graphic novel all about Marxism! I had to read it for my Marxist Cultural Theory class. Having already been through for years of high school and three and a half years of a liberal arts degree, I don’t know that I would categorize myself as a “beginner” when it comes to Marxism – though the book was highly readable and easily understood, so it would probably be an appropriate primer for a true beginner.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Honestly, when faced with the task of reading an 1835 French realist novel, I was not very enthused. And while it isn’t one that I’m likely to revisit, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. The plot wasn’t quite enough to balance out the often tediously lengthy description, but this was much less of a struggle to get through than I anticipated. Which doesn’t really sound like high praise, now that I think about it…

Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke

Really gorgeous narrative poetry about a Black family living in mid-20th century Atlantic Canada. I’m not normally a poetry person, but perhaps narrative poetry is the way to my heart. The story was as compelling – and heartbreaking – as the poetry itself.

Diamond Grill by Fred Wah

Another one that I really enjoyed! This is a literary/poetic autobiography, focusing on Fred Wah, Jr.’s father’s Chinese restaurant in Western Canada as well as his own hybrid Chinese-Scottish-Swedish identity. Peppered with recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of food – two of my classmates actually cooked from a recipe in the book, and it was pretty good! I loved the use of language and overall found this book very moving and evocative.

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

While this book was made up of interweaving narratives, a device which I usually enjoy, and while it was set it in my home city of Toronto, it fell very flat for me. The characters really lacked meaningful interiority, which was a shame, because their situations rendered differently could have been hugely emotionally affecting. Emotional connection with characters is almost always the number one factor in my enjoyment of a book! Really too bad, because the descriptive passages were great and the plot could have been awesome.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music, From Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley

This is a 550-page history of the past 70 years of pop music, which is certainly an ambitious task. Overall, I do think that the task was in good hands. Although the text suffered sometimes from over-editorializing (which at various points lead to sexist condescension), it was lucidly- and engagingly-written, packing in a massive amount of information without being dry or confusing. This isn’t a page-turner: it took me nearly 3 months to get through, and I normally finish books inside of half a week, even if they’re quite long.

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Foe is a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic castaway tale Robinson Crusoe. This time, Cruso (as he is called in this novel) is joined on his island by Susan Barton, a British woman who has just spent two years searching for her lost daughter in Brazil. In Coetzee’s adaptation, Cruso’s “manservant” (aka slave) Friday is not indigenous to the Americas; rather, he is an African slave whose tongue has been cut out, supposedly by slavers – though Susan does question several times whether it was Cruso who cut his tongue out. It’s an interesting postcolonial (and to a lesser degree feminist-aligned) adaptation of the original novel, and while the writing is great, it fell short for me. Above all, it’s an exploration of authorship and whose story gets to be told, and it seems that Friday is the loser here. The novel can be read as an allegory for Apartheid (it was written in 1986 by a white South African), but it just didn’t push far enough for me. I do believe that Susan’s insistence on speaking for Friday and justifying why she kept him as a “servant” was meant to be rather damning of her character, but there is no narrative closure for Friday and he ends up being denied a voice. (I mean, literally, he has no tongue.)

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

(Can you tell from this list that I’m taking a class on Canadian lit? Probably only if you’re Canadian or particularly into CanLit.)

I must be a bad Canadian, because it’s taken me this long to read any of Mordecai Richler’s adult novels. (And I’m not entirely sure that I even read any Jacob Two-Two as a kid.) Being assigned a nearly 600-page novel in the last three weeks of my degree did not agree with me, but I actually ended up really enjoying the book. It’s part adventure story, part genealogy of the dysfunctional and sprawling Gursky family, and part rather apt picture of the Montreal of the 20th century. It’s told non-chronologically, spans many decades, and is made up of multiple narratives, which is right up my alley. And it makes heavy (fictionalized) use of the Franklin Expedition, which was an object of my obsession when I was about 11 or 12. I also loved the writing style – it’s very Montreal. All in all, a very rewarding read.

I was, like a nerd, going to include a list of some of the academic texts I’ve enjoyed over the past semester, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll leave you hanging.

I’m happy with the amount I’ve read this year so far: at this rate, I’m on pace to read 32 this year, which is 7 ahead of my goal of 25. (I have no doubt I’ll slow down in the fall, but a girl can dream.) As for my goal to read more by marginalized people: I’m not sure if I’m quite hitting my target of 75%, but this is a pretty diverse list. More women and more LGBTQ+ people in the next few months, though! My one true disappointment is that only two of these books were read simply for the fun of it: everything else was for school. Obviously, over the summer I will not have school dictating what to read, so I will be able to dive into the small stack that has been accumulating on top of my bookshelf. Meet you back here in 3 months and hopefully I’ll have another 8 books to share with you!

Book Review: Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

Posted on January 13, 2016 under Books

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I read a lot of beauty blogs and watch a lot of beauty videos on YouTube, which I’m sure is relatable to almost everyone reading this. When it comes to beauty content, I’ll consume almost anything. (And yes, that totally includes hatewatching. Don’t pretend you’re too good for it! Unless you genuinely are, in which case I salute you. I’m weak.) By far my favourite type of beauty content is the stuff that’s intelligent, that goes beyond the surface and that connects beauty to wider cultural or historical phenomena.

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I’ll be straight with you: if Lisa Eldridge‘s much-anticipated Face Paint: The Story of Makeup had been a makeup guidebook à la Kevyn Aucoin or Bobbi Brown, I never would have purchased it. As much as I love Lisa’s YouTube channel (who doesn’t?), book has never been a makeup tutorial format that’s interested me. In the age of free YouTube tutorials that are constantly up-to-date and cutting edge, not to mention moving images that better demonstrate technique, I’m not going to take the time to peruse a book about how to apply makeup.

But Face Paint isn’t about how to apply makeup, though god knows Lisa Eldridge is good at that. Instead, it’s a painstakingly-researched history of makeup, told thematically rather than chronologically. So, armed with an Indigo gift card from Christmas and the goal to read more nonfiction in 2016, Face Paint was the first book I bought this year, as well as the first I finished.

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Most of the information in Face Paint can probably be found fairly easily on the internet. What you’re paying for here is all of that information synthesized, organized in a certain manner, and presented alongside impeccably-selected photographs, vintage ads, and other images.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first, The Ancient Palette, deals with the history of red, white, and black makeup, from prehistoric times right up until the 20th century. The second, The Business of Beauty, describes how the modern day beauty industry developed, looking at the influence of film and theatre, the history of cosmetics marketing, and makeup figureheads such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Charles Revson.

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There are many themes running throughout the book (which is why Lisa chose not to organize it chronologically); my favourite is the mistrust men have of makeup:

Early Christian writers had created a powerful association between makeup and deception that was hard to shake, with Saint Cyprian declaring that the act of painting the face and “staining” the cheeks was “to drive out all truth, both of face and head, by the assault of their own corruption.” (30)

Some things never change!

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As a cosmetics SA, I’m a big proponent of understanding skincare ingredients in order to make more informed, empowered decisions that aren’t simply based on absurd marketing claims. I know very little about the science behind makeup, however, so the focus of the last section of the book (The Bleeding Edge) on what exactly makes products work was fascinating. I wish there’d been more information offered – although I suppose independent research is always a possibility! This chapter is interesting, useful, and accessible for those of us with very little science background. (The last time I learned about chemistry in a formal setting was 2010, and I wasn’t exactly good at it…)

From a feminist perspective (because this is me we’re talking about), I really enjoyed Lisa’s focus on the contributions of women, and the fact that she emphasized that many of the early texts on cosmetics were written by men and did not include a female perspective. I was also glad to see that there were some amazing women of colour featured in her Makeup Muses sections at the end of each chapter, from Meena Kumari to Anna May Wong. (Though there’s always room for more!) I also loved that, while each woman profiled in the Makeup Muses sections obviously contributed to beauty trends, Lisa also focused on her accomplishments outside of makeup or being pretty. I liked that she wasn’t afraid to point out that many of the shocking and offensive advertising techniques from years past are still present today, although deployed in a slightly more subtle manner. I do wish that in her chapter on White she had talked a little bit more about the racial implications of paleness as an entrenched beauty standard, as I felt she skirted around the issue a bit. It’s also worth noting that the book is very much the story of Western makeup, especially in the second part. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as obviously she had to narrow the focus, but I think it’s important to mention that North American and European beauty brands, styles, and standards aren’t universal!

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As someone in the last semester of a Cultural Studies degree, I am very interested in how cultural objects affect everyday life and vice versa. Makeup obviously is a part of everyday life (not for everyone, obviously, but for many), and I felt like Face Paint was a very thorough and cogent exploration of the dialogue between makeup and culture. On page 226, Lisa argues that “Whether we want to look like our favorite screen idol, celebrity, model, or singer, we are communicating something about ourselves to the outside world, displaying that we belong to a group.” I think this is a fairly true statement, though it’s not the whole truth. And, of course, when examining the role of makeup in the everyday lives of women, I think we must examine how makeup works to uphold the patriarchy – an uncomfortable, difficult, and perhaps impossible act of reconciliation for feminist beauty-lovers.

Despite my (obvious) love of makeup and involvement in the industry in the capacity of an SA, I actually didn’t know much about the history of makeup at all. I learned so much from Face Paint, all in Lisa’s characteristic sensible, accessible, yet still interesting style. I do feel that the book may be a tad basic for those who already have a reasonable working knowledge of the history of makeup, but for me, the information, presentation, and stunning accompanying imagery all combine to make Face Paint well worth $35.95 CAD. I’d have been glad to pay full price for it even without the gift card.

A look at some of the stunning packaging (mostly, if not fully, from Lisa’s personal collection) and advertisements featured throughout the book:

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Some of the vintage makeup ads are so intoxicatingly beautiful! I’d put most of them up on my wall in a heartbeat.

And a look at my favourite images from the entire book:

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Stunning whimsical lashes by Shu Uemura. Lashes really don’t do it for me unless they’re at least a little bit absurd.

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More amazing lashes! I’d love to have a high resolution version of this image to frame or put on my wall or something. I think it’s beautiful.

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Special Cleopatra-themed lipstick packaging from Revlon in anticipation of the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film. Can you imagine such packaging at a drugstore pricepoint today?!

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I think both of these images are compelling and gorgeous, but I just cannot get over the Harper’s Bazaar cover on the right. That’s another one that I would kill to have a poster of.

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I love images of women putting on makeup – the privacy of such a personal act has been stripped away and rendered an act worthy of artistic representation.

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Speaking of which… I first saw this image at the V&A Horst exhibition in the fall of 2014 and promptly became obsessed with it. I’ve been on the lookout for a high quality, reasonably-priced print of it ever since. Imagine my elation when I saw it included in the book!

For another (insightful, thorough) review of Face Paint, I highly recommend Liz’s post from last month.

Where to buy Face Paint if you so desire:

Amazon | Kindle | Chapters/Indigo | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Nook