Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

diaryI think my favourite genre is weird-dark, so it’s strange that it’s taken me so long to read any Palahniuk (who also wrote Fight Club). Diary is a ‘coma diary’ written by Misty Wilmot as her husband, Peter, is in a coma after a suicide attempt. Misty hates Peter and is brilliantly snarky and angry. They live on a once affluent island which is now filled with tourists and second homes. It turns out Peter, who had been refurbishing some of the houses, has been plastering in and hiding whole rooms, leaving horrible messages scrawled all over the walls and furnishings. But that isn’t really the story. It gets weirder. And darker.

I really enjoyed this. It’s bleakly funny and weird and dark and a bit horrifying, which is basically perfect for me. It reminded me of Shirley Jackson, but more graphic because it’s Chuck Palahniuk. I thought the very last page was unnecessary and a little cheesy, though I can see why it’s there. Without that final page, I think it has a better, creepier ending as it’s a little more ambiguous and there’s more of a sense of the story repeating forever.

I’m not sure what the correct term is, but I really liked the production on the cover (I have a Vintage books UK paperback). It’s kind of soft and floppy, which would be annoying for a long book but for a short one it just had a really nice feel to it when reading.

An enjoyable creepy read that I definitely recommend to fans of slow horror and Shirley Jackson.

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

bad feministThe essays in this collection aren’t just about feminism, but also race, culture, (and representations of race in popular culture), scrabble, and Roxane Gay herself. I was expecting it to be more feminism-focused, but the mix of subjects works really well together and still feel like they hang on a common thread that I can’t quite articulate. The only exception is perhaps the essay on scrabble tournaments (Gay plays competitively), but I didn’t care because I loved that essay. It’s really hard to pick out particular essays, though, because so many were interesting and ones that I would recommend to people, even just as stand-alone pieces.

‘Bad Feminist’ basically means being a feminist (which is just believing in equal rights for men and women), but also a human person who has contradictions and flaws and is still trying to figure everything out. I really like this definition. As she talks about in the introduction, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” If you don’t accept these human flaws, then you end up putting feminism (and individuals) in an impossible position of being at all times perfect and perfectly able to solve all problems. When it (they) can’t meet those impossible standards, it (they) are put are the other extreme, as useless failures. It’s about not knocking yourself or others down if you do make mistakes, but also about always trying to do better.

This idea of not having all the answers, but trying to do better, comes through in a lot of her essays. For example, she talks about her conflicting opinions about writing outside of your own experience, particularly about race. She doesn’t offer any specific solutions and she doesn’t really resolve what her own opinion is, but it feels honest and is still thought-provoking.

The one thing I felt was missing was that none of the ideas in the collection felt particularly new to me. But, even though it didn’t challenge my pre-existing notions of feminism or the representation of race and gender in popular culture, I still got a lot out of it, mainly because Gay writes really well. She’s critical in a nuanced, smart and readable way, so even if the ideas aren’t entirely new, there’s something extra there.

You know how sometimes you read a book and it feels like part or all of it was written just for you, for that exact moment? It’s a rare occurrence but when it happens it’s a bit magic. In her essay ‘Blurred Lines, Indeed’ about misogyny in pop culture, the contradictions of liking some of that pop culture, and its links with wider societal misogyny, she says this:

It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not one of these things happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.

I read this one sentence over and over. I’m not a crier, but I cried a little. And it wasn’t about feminism. I’ve been going through a relapse health-wise and it’s tough. It’s not just the feeling crap stuff, it’s all the other financial, social and personal stresses that go alongside chronic illness. At the time I read this sentence, I was feeling like I only have permission to talk about this crap if I make it into a joke; if I keep it light. The vast majority of the time, I like jokes, it’s how I deal with it; but when what you need is something more substantial, a more serious understanding, and you get told to ‘lighten up’, it feels like a punch in the gut. I’m ok now, but, in the middle of a bad few days, Gay articulated exactly what I was feeling and needed to hear (even if it was about something else!).

Roxane Gay is super smart and funny and angry and I’d definitely recommend this collection.

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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

dear committe membersDear Committee Members is a novel entirely made up of letters of recommendation written by Jason Fitger, a disgruntled professor of creative writing at Payne University. While the English department is being cut left, right, and centre, the Economics department on the floor above is being remodelled, causing the English floor to become something of a hazard zone. He’s pissed he has to write so many letters of recommendation. He’s pissed that his writing career is basically over. He’s pissed that his ‘star’ student can’t get a break, while a student he doesn’t think much of signs a lucrative publishing contract. He’s pissed at his exes (generally in positions of power), at his colleagues, and the elevated status and wealth of the economics department compared to his own. (It’s true that business/economics always has more money. At the university where I work, the business school is the only building on campus with luxury toilet paper in the loos.)

I was told this was a cross between Stoner and Where’d You Go Bernadette? and it kind of is – if Stoner (the man) always took the path of most, rather than least, resistance. I love an unlikeable narrator, when it works, and this one does. He’s arrogant and passive aggressive, with a trail of ex-partners and colleagues he’s alienated at one time or another who he unfortunately needs to contact for help. He does change over the course of the book, becoming increasingly arsey, and then beginning to see things in a different way (though still, thankfully, retaining some of his core arsey-ness).

It’s a quick read but began to feel a little repetitive half-way through. I could have read it in one sitting but I think I would have enjoyed it less that way. I definitely noticed myself starting to get tired of it, but then really liking it again when I picked it back up.

As I’ve said before I’m a bit of a sucker for campus-based novels. This is a light, funny, little-bit-sad, read – particularly recommended if you’ve ever worked in academia.

Dear Committee Members is out now in ebook, and published in hardback on 23rd October 2014.

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August reads

Actually managed to get quite a bit of (good and varied) reading done this month.

figures on a beachFigures on a Beach by Kirk VanDyke (Novel)

This was a good short read. It’s a bit overwritten and clunky in places, but an interesting look at a man trying to survive the winter living in a van on a Texas beach, dealing with mental health problems and trying to connect with other people. Full review here.

watchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Graphic novel, fiction)

I’m not really into superhero stuff (especially the all-American, clean-cut type), but this made me want to check out some dark superhero comics. It’s about the people behind the masks, and whether the kind of person who’d put on a costume and fight crime is the sort of person you’d want doing that. It’s also about whether doing something for a good reason, and for a good outcome, is ok if what you’re doing is pretty horrible and definitely not ok. It’s a classic for a reason, dark, and complex. Worth checking out even if, like me, you don’t think superheroes are for you. (I also wrote a post here about where to start with graphic novels).

tony hoganTony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Novel)

This is very sweary, brilliant book. It follows Janie from birth to late teens, living in poverty in North Shields and Great Yarmouth with her mum and, later, her little sister Tiny. In some ways it reminded me of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, in that it follows a similar age span of a girl wanting to escape the life she finds herself in. But, aside from more straight-forward language, this book also has so much humour. There are dark things happening, and life is a bit grim, but there’s also a lightness that’s missing from AGIAHFT. Janie is surrounded by strong, though not always ‘right’, women, mostly feckless men, and a strong sense of herself and a library that offers her a different perspective on the world. I saw Kerry Hudson read this month and she’s basically my new author crush now. (She also started the WoMentoring Project).

my friend dahmerMy Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (Graphic novel, non-fiction)

This is about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s life in high school, told from Backderf’s perspective who was in his class. Backderf uses the word ‘friend’ very loosely – Dahmer didn’t really have any friends, and Backderf and his crowd used Dahmer for fun in a thoughtless teenager sort of way, but he was never part of their group. For me, the most interesting thing was that there was another guy in their class who had similar warning signs (such as cruelty to animals), and was actually Backderf’s first guess when he heard someone he went to school with turned out to be a killer – how someone gets from loner/slightly cruel teenager to serial killer is complex. Even though not a lot happens, and at times Backderf is a bit too simplistic in his own explanations, it’s an interesting read. The artwork didn’t totally grab me, but it suited the subject pretty well.

disraeli avenueDisraeli Avenue by Caroline Smailes (Novel)

This is a short novella about the lives of the people on a single street, a spin-off of Smailes’ earlier novel In Search of Adam. What Smailes does really well in this, that so many other novels fail to do, is create different and distinct voices for each person behind the each of the doors. In places it’s funny, in others kind of horrifying; it’s about relationships, family, and the profound and the inconsequential that goes on behind closed doors. A short, quick read that’s worth your time. Full review here.

the year of magical thinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Non-fiction)

I read a tiny extract of Didion’s in Into Thin Air and I just loved her writing. Someone recommended this as a good place to start with her work, even though it’s non-fiction. It’s a book about Didion’s struggles with grief and coming to terms with the sudden death of husband while her daughter was in intensive care. The ‘magical thinking’ is about the difference between knowing something rationally, but not believing it emotionally, and trying to find your way between the two. For example, when sorting her husband’s things, she doesn’t throw his shoes away, as he’ll need them when he gets back (and knowing this with certainty). She does a lot of research on grief (which she includes) to try and work out if her reactions are ‘normal’. Some people describe Didion as ‘cool’ and ‘emotionless’, perhaps because of this kind of thing, but it read to me like a person trying to figure out how to live in a new reality (and describing her as ‘cool’ as though there is a right way to act in grief kind of proves the some of the point she was making). Her writing is beautiful and I really enjoyed this (as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a book like this).

1q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Novel – Japanese in translation)

Probably the longest book I’ve ever read, and full of Murakami weirdness. It’s slow-moving in places but very enjoyable. Full review here.

 

 

State of the TBR: 56 books

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1q84Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin (books 1 & 2) and Philip Gabriel (book 3).

I’ve been a little quiet on here recently because it’s taken me about a week and a half to read this beast of a book. 1Q84 (‘9′ in Japanese is pronounced ‘ku’) is a book in three books with chapters that alternate between Tengo, a cram school maths teacher and writer, and Aomame, a fitness instructor and part-time assassin. In the third book, there are also chapters from Ushikawa, an ugly private detective.

This is Murakami weirdness. It’s the kind of book I can’t really explain succinctly but I will do my best! Tengo is asked by his editor friend to ghost-write a book called Air Chrysalis, submitted by 17-year-old Fuka-Eri, in order to submit it to a prestigious writing competition as the story lacks the style to support the substance. Unsure, Tengo goes along with it, but gets pulled into something much more than simply writing. Meanwhile, Aomame, when not working as a fitness instructor, assassinates men who have been abusing women. She is given her assignments by a wealthy dowager, who asks her to do one final, but most dangerous, kill. Aomame also gradually realises that when she climbed down an emergency stairway to escape traffic, she has stepped into a new world where things are subtly, but significantly, different. Tengo and Aomame’s stories intertwine, and alongside and within all of this there’s a secretive cult, Little People with tremendous power climbing out a goat’s mouth, two moons, and, because it’s Murakami, cats, food, breasts and classical music. It’s a book about fact and fiction, and trying to tease apart the two – although, as the taxi driver in the very first chapter says, “…don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

Though it’s written as three books, it didn’t read like a trilogy to me. Books one and two are often bound in one volume, and it did feel like they were one book (complete with cliffhanger ending), as the end of book one just felt like the end of any other chapter. Book three, on the other hand, read like it was a separate book. Book three has a different tone, partly due to the introduction of Ushikawa’s ‘lone detective’ chapters. Although it has a different translator to the first two, I didn’t notice any particular differences in language, which is interesting in itself as so many translators talk about translation as almost co-construction.

More happens in book three, but it felt slower-paced, as though Murakami was leaving the moment Tengo and Aomame would inevitably meet as long as possible. Perhaps it was to make the reader think it would never happen, that they would get just so close but pass each other by, but I never felt that kind of doubt. I also wasn’t sure about the introduction of Ushikawa’s perspective and enjoyed his chapters the least. As the reader, you know the answers he is looking for, and the chapters feel kind of stereotypically private detective – a person on the fringes, rejected by society, kind of seedy and not worrying about the kind of person/people he works for. Most of the characters in 1Q84 are on the fringes, sometimes in secret, but in more interesting, nuanced ways. Murakami likes repetition in the sense of showing the same thing from different angles, but Ushikawa felt a layer too far and a bit unnecessary.

The ending is tied up in one sense, but there are many threads left dangling, and you get the impression that the world of 1Q84, outside of Tengo and Aomame, will continue without you. I know it’s the kind of thing that would annoy some people, but I really liked it. 1Q84 is messy, with only limited explanations of key aspects of the world like the Little People, so I think it’s fitting that there are things you will never know.

Despite the title, there were only a few elements of Orwell’s 1984 to draw any kind of comparison/contrast with (now that feels like an annoying English lit question!). But I don’t think this is the kind of book to over-analyse, especially while reading it. I think it’s just about reading and going with it, and you gradually understand the new world you have stepped into (and that there are things you will never understand). The ideas and images in the book find their way in on their own (as will a hunger for proper vegetarian Japanese food).

I called this a ‘beast of a book’, but, despite its sometimes slow-moving 1260 pages, I felt like I breezed through it. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first Murakami (maybe Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart, or the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?), but it’s still definitely worth your time.

I had to turn my copy of book 3 over when I wasn’t reading it, because I’m pretty sure this bird was watching me in my sleep:

1q84 3

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Disraeli Avenue by Caroline Smailes

disraeli avenueFor as long as I can remember, I’ve always looked out of the car/train window and at all the houses and wondered about the people who lived in them. When I was very small I remember being fascinated by the fact there were all these people living lives I knew nothing about, and that they knew nothing of me, and it was like we didn’t exist. (I was a weird kid). Disraeli Avenue is about a street of houses, and the lives of the people in them. Each short chapter is a snapshot of the person/people living in one of the houses, as well as their, often incorrect, views on the goings on behind other doors. The chapters are told variously through traditional first/third person, invoices, texts, and diary entries.

Disraeli Avenue is a kind of spin-off from Smailes’ novel In Search of Adam, focusing more on the minor characters. I haven’t read In Search of Adam (yet), but Disraeli Avenue worked fine as a stand-alone. On occasion I got a bit confused about who lived where and who a particular narrator was referring to, but it was generally easy to follow. What Smailes does really well in this, that so many other novels fail to do, is create different and distinct voices for each person behind the doors. In places it’s funny, in others kind of horrifying; it’s about relationships, family, and the profound and the inconsequential that goes on behind closed doors. A short, quick read that’s worth your time.

Disraeli Avenue was written to raise money for the charity One in Four, which helps people who have experienced sexual abuse. Through a free download with optional donation, £1500 was raised. Unfortunately, when it was later published in paperback by Bluechrome, the publisher did a runner with the royalties and One in Four received nothing from the paperback sales. The Friday Project has now reissued Disraeli Avenue as an ebook, and all the proceeds will go to One in Four.

I received a free copy of Disraeli Avenue in exchange for an honest review. As it was free, I’m going to also buy a copy so One in Four get the proceeds.

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Where to start with graphic novels

I’ve only been reading graphic novels for a couple of years. Before, it was partly that I didn’t ‘get’ them as I thought it was all superhero-type comics, but also that it’s hard to know where to start.

Like any type of book, what you’ll like is all down to your own tastes and interests, but I’ve listed a few fiction and non-fiction graphic novels below that I think make great starting points. If you read something you like, check out other books by the author or artist, or pop into your local bookshop or comic shop for some other recommendations (or leave a comment below with which ones you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll come up with a couple of suggestions). Also, unless you know what you want, I think it’s better to buy graphic novels in a physical shop so you can browse and have a quick flick through and see if you like the artwork. If you hate it, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading it that much!

Just a quick note on terminology first…mostly, you don’t need to worry about this stuff unless you get a very picky comic book seller or are on forums. But you might come across these:

  • Single issue is basically what you think of when you think of comic books – a slim single story, usually part of a larger series
  • Trade paperback is a volume of 5/6 single issues. These are often called graphic novels and will usually be in the graphic novel section of bookshops (I’m including a couple below that are technically trade paperbacks)
  • Graphic novel is a novel in graphic form (kinda what it says on the tin!). This means it’s usually a single, self-contained, longer story. Technically, non-fiction is a ‘graphic memoir’ or ‘graphic non-fiction’, but usually they just get called graphic novels too.

Non-fiction

I started with non-fiction, and it’s a good place to start if you, like I shamefully used to, think graphic novels aren’t ‘proper’ books and can’t have the same depth and power of novels. Oh the shame.

the-complete-mausMaus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s dad’s experience during the holacaust in world war II, his relationship with his dad in the present, and how the success of the first part of Maus affected him. It’s about unbelievable survival, but also how suffering begets suffering. All the characters are drawn as animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, etc) which adds a strange kind of distance that makes the whole thing more horrific because you know it’s truth. It’s an amazing book that deservedly won the Pulitzer. This is where I started, and I haven’t looked back since.

Fun HomeFun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home is about Bechdel’s father, and her relationship with him. In that sense, it has something in common with Maus, but it’s a very different book. Her father is distant and frequently angry, and a closeted gay man having relationships with his male students. Bechdel also discovers she’s gay, and tries to work out who she is in relationship to her father, as well as whether he killed himself or it was an accident. It’s non-linear, and often returns to previous conversations or frames when she has new information, but it never feels repetitive. She weaves in references to literature, a love she shared with her father, and it’s drawn in grey-scale with a blue-grey wash.

CompletePersepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi (French in translation)

Translator: Anjali Singh. Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s child-/teenage-/young adult-hood in Tehran, Iran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, revolution, and war with Iraq. There’s humour, horror, politics and a lack of sentimentality. Satrapi isn’t always likeable in this, and I really like that – it makes it feel like an honest portrayal. The art is simplistic black and white, and the way she draws herself evolves as she ages.

Fiction

There are so many I could list, so I’ve tried to list some with different styles of art and content, so you should find something here that takes your fancy.

the arrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

This is wordless, so might technically be a picture book (though I found it in the graphic novel section). It’s about the immigrant experience; a man leaves his family to try and get work in a foreign city, as something bad is happening in his hometown. The artwork is absolutely beautiful. I did a full review here, where you can check out some pictures of the art. It’s basically poetry without words. You don’t need to be able to articulate it, you can just feel the meaning. I find myself recommending this one all the time.

sex-criminals volume 1Sex Criminals Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

This is brilliant. It’s funny, filthy and weird. Suzie and Jon both stop time when they orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank to save the library where Suzie works. I absolutely love this – you can check out my full review here to see a few pictures of the artwork.

watchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

I’m not really into superhero stuff (especially the all-American, clean-cut type), but this made me want to check out some dark superhero comics. It’s about the people behind the masks, and whether the kind of person who’d put on a costume and fight crime is the sort of person you’d want doing that. It’s also about whether doing something for a good reason, and for a good outcome, is ok if what you’re doing is pretty horrible and definitely not ok. It’s a classic for a reason, dark, and complex. Worth checking out even if, like me, you don’t think superheroes are for you.

The gigantic beard that was evil 3The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins

This is a Roald Dahl-esque fairy tale about a man living in an extremely neat and ordered island called Here. One day, his face begins to burn, and a gigantic, ever-growing beard erupts from his chin. As it’s a fairy tale, it can be read as weird story of a beard taking over an ordered island, or on any number of levels, such as the fear of other (what is There and not Here), the fear of what cannot be controlled, or how chaos will always find a way. The artwork is gorgeous too – my full review has some pictures of the art.

I hope you find something in that lot that interests you, especially if you’ve never picked up a graphic novel before. If you’d like any other recommendations, just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best!

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