Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna-kareninaTranslated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

I got this beautiful new Vintage classics edition which is part of their Russian classics reissue. All the covers in the series use Russian textile designs from the nineteenth century and Soviet era and are gorgeous.

It’s a big book, and 1000ish pages can look a bit intimidating, but it’s surprisingly easy to read. I loved parts of this book and felt meh about other parts.

So much of this novel is about the search for meaning, and working out how to live. All of the characters are complex, contradictory, and trying to find their way. They are all human and flawed and doing their best (which doesn’t always mean what would be best for them). Levin and Anna, both equally the central characters despite the title, are very different people, but essentially have the same questions about life. The contrast is how joy and death move in different directions for them.

Sometimes it feels a little bogged down in repeated, similar conversations about farming technique or philosophy. I get that they were there as a literal and metaphorical part of that search for meaning, but at times it was too much and some sections were a slog. Particularly as Tolstoy is definitely an advocate of ‘tell don’t show’.

I lot of the book is also about the differing position of men and women in society. After Anna leaves Karenin for Vronksy, she is shunned by society; most of her former friends won’t even visit her at home. Vronsky, on the other hand, is able to live just as he had before without question. This, and Vronsky’s lack of real understanding, underlies the tension between them. Equally, Kitty, expecting a proposal from Vronsky but not getting one, is made to feel incredible shame, even though nothing happened and she did nothing wrong. Dolly is cheated on Oblonsky, but she is seen as the unreasonable one for being upset about it and wanting to leave.

Even so, I wouldn’t call this a wholly feminist novel. Women are praised, by Tolstoy, for meekness and submissiveness – “She was frightened, shy, shamefaced, and therefore even more charming.” Vomit. And nearly every woman bursts into tears as soon as someone even disagrees with them (and the ones that don’t are not painted in a positive light).

I also thought it ended a bit oddly. I can see that Levin and Anna both finding answers to their existential crises was supposed to stand in contrast as their lives had throughout the book, but finishing with Levin’s ending rather than Anna’s made it feel a bit flat.

I like books that explore meaning and have fully rounded characters, so I should have loved this. But it didn’t blow me away the way Moby Dick did, which is what I was expecting. There’s a lot I loved about it and some sections were incredible, but I felt so meh about other parts I couldn’t love the book as whole. A nearly-but-not-quite read for me.

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January reads 2017

midnights-childrenMidnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (novel)

Parts of this were great; others were a slog. Normally I like an unlikeable narrator/anti-hero, and a non-linear narrative, but Saleem was such an arrogant dick I couldn’t get on board with him. I think because it felt like Rushdie was using him at times to point out his own cleverness, in a way like, “did you see what I did there? And this parallel over here, did you see that? And here, look, another clever parallel I made between Saleem and India!”. It was incredibly annoying and I need a bit more room to breathe and think than that. There were a lot of interesting ideas and enjoyable sections, but it felt like wading through a lot of annoyance between them.

homegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi (novel)

It does live up to the hype. I think I appreciated it more reading it after Midnight’s Children because it was a breeze to read in comparison, and felt less convoluted despite covering more characters and a longer timespan. The ending let it down as it felt like it was shoe-horned in to make a point and end things far too neatly, and didn’t fit with the characters. However, it’s a book that’s definitely worth your time as an interesting, readable, and important novel about how the trauma of slavery to individuals and communities transmits through the generations to the modern day. Full review here.

human-actsHuman Acts by Han Kang (novel, Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This book is stark and brutal, and is about the violence done to the body as a violence to the soul – as the violence of the Gwangju uprising and massacre afflicts the community’s soul. I love the control and simplicity of Han Kang’s writing and the way she uses multiple perspectives and tenses to circle around and show different views of not just the event itself but also its aftermath. I also really appreciated Deborah Smith’s translator’s note & introduction at the beginning. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The Vegetarian, but it’s still excellent and I’m impatient for her other work to be translated. Full review here.

the-argonautsThe Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (non-fiction)

This is a book about the fluidity of the apparent juxtapositions within gender, identity, love, and parenthood, written in a fluid style that moves between memoir and academic analysis. Whilst I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, I enjoyed that it made me do the work and it’s more a collection of thoughts to consider. It’s not often I read a book where the overarching themes are clearer than the specifics, but I liked it. Full review here.

Zines (fiction & non-fiction)

Screenshot 2017-02-01 15.24.31.pngI went to a local zine fair and picked up a bunch of random stuff that varied in production and type of content to try out. A lot were ok, but not great. The best ones took a fully-formed idea and presented it simply but clearly, in a way that used the physical format of a zine, so thought about the medium as well as the message. Or were like the best short stories / flash fiction and were a coherent whole story that’s a fragment that also speaks to a larger/wider whole. A couple annoyed me because they had the potential to be something more. They were the ones about what it was like entering a particular situation as a more privileged outsider, like volunteering at the Calais refugee camp or going to prison for a week, that centred their own voices and experiences rather than the people/issues they were telling you about. Zines are often there to tell your own story, which of course is a valid thing, but I would be more interested in hearing the voices of those who are not normally heard, and the authors using their zines/platforms to elevate those voices rather than just show their own lens. It just felt like an opportunity missed.

Currently reading: The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching (non-fiction)

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The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

the-argonautsThis book was described to me as being a kind of memoir about how Nelson’s body changed with pregnancy while her partner Harry’s body changed as he started taking testosterone and had surgery. It is, and it isn’t. This aspect of the book is important, but isn’t really the main focus. It’s really a book about juxtapositions that are not juxtapositions – male/female, birth/death, baby/mother, assimilation/revolution – the fluidity between them.

On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male’, mine, more and more ‘female’. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were ageing.

The fluidities between apparent firm binaries forms the centre of the book as “an endless becoming”. The title itself comes from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

…in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

The ‘Argo’ reappears throughout the book as an image of this renewal/re-creation that both changes and does not change the subject.

The book itself is written in a fluid way which moves between more academic analysis and more traditional memoir, without any chapter breaks. While the overarching themes are clear, some of the specifics and ideas are not. It feels like Nelson is giving you her thoughts and it’s up to you to consider them and develop them. I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, but I mostly liked that you have to do the work yourself as the reader.

This is a great read for digging deep into notions of gender, identity, love, and parenthood. Not just Maggie Nelson’s views, but also considering your own. I think it’s going to be an interesting one to re-read.

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Human Acts by Han Kang

human-actsTranslated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Human Acts tells the story of the 1980 Gwangju uprising and massacre in South Korea. It’s a book about the trauma of what happened, of being silenced, of the aftermath, and about resistance, class, and death. This is a stark and brutal read. But Han Kang’s skill is such that the violence is never sensationalised or gratuitous, and the book still has subtlety and layers.

Like The Vegetarian, Han Kang uses multiple perspectives and tenses. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, at different points in time, and each is connected in some way to the first chapter’s central character, Dong-ho. At times it was difficult to work out how a chapter’s narrator was connected to the others, but it always emerged eventually, and may be in part because I read it a number of sittings so it took me a few pages to pick up the thread again. The different perspectives and shifts in time mean that, as a reader, you piece together events and see both the immediate trauma and how that trauma stays and scars. Han Kang centers corpses, and the violence done to those corpses both literally and in terms of many families being unable to bury their dead with proper burial rites. The violence done to the body as a violence done to the soul – as the violence in Gwangju also afflicts the community’s soul.

But it’s not just about the violence of it. There’s also a lot about the ways people stand up to that violence (of both body and soul). As well as the more overt protests, there is also a sense of people holding on to hope or to remembrance, even though that doesn’t always work out well for them. It’s the small and the large ways a person can try to make a difference. One of the chapters is from the perspective of a man being interviewed for a university professor’s thesis on his experiences, and it seems the professor is doing it to highlight what happened and the voices who have been silenced. But it’s not. The man is being re-traumatised, and that only seems helpful to the professor, not to him. (The professor re-appears in a later chapter, not taking no for an answer when a woman doesn’t want to talk to him about what she saw). Sometimes, as an outsider to a situation, you need to examine whether your attempt to ‘make a difference’ is really elevating voices in a way which is helpful to them (something that resonated with me as a researcher).

The writing is simple and concise but beautiful. It feels very controlled, in a good way, and leaves you both detached and emotionally invested at the same time, in the same way many of the characters are struggling with their trauma through balancing detachment and emotional investment.

Normally I’d say not to read the introduction to a book before you’ve read it, especially classics, because they’re normally full of spoilers and assume you already have a working knowledge of the book. But not in this case. Definitely read Deborah Smith’s introduction first, as it provides some background to what was happening in South Korea at the time, as well as some interesting and helpful notes on the process of translating it. (Aside: I want all translations to have a translator’s note. Translation is an act of co-creation, so it’s always fascinating to see how and why particular choices were made).

I love Han Kang’s work. There’s always so much to pull apart and feel and learn and manages to do it all in relatively few pages. Though I think I prefer The Vegetarian, and it’s still early in the year, I’m almost certain this will be on my best of 2017 list.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoingI rarely buy new releases because I don’t like hardbacks, or reading in the midst of hype, but I couldn’t resist this one. And it’s true what everyone’s saying – it’s a book that actually does live up to the hype.

In 18th century west Africa, in what’s now Ghana, Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never meet. Effia is made to be a white British slave trader’s wife, while Esi is sold into slavery and eventually shipped to the US. The book follows the next six generations of their families in Ghana and the US, right up to the present day, and explores how the trauma of slavery, colonialism and racism can run through.

Each chapter focuses on one descendant of each side of the family, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s family. (A family tree is printed at the beginning of the book which is really helpful to check each time you pick up the book to remember which side of the family you’re reading about). The novel is almost an interlinked short story collection, but it becomes a novel because part of what it’s about is that thread between them – the ‘zooming out’ and seeing the whole.

Though a couple of the later chapters are a little less skillful, what Gyasi manages to do with only about twenty pages for each character vignette is incredible. As well as creating a connection between the reader and all fourteen main characters, she weaves in so much history of each time period, but in a way that never feels too expositional. Each chapter is also its own love story, though not always a happy one, as we see how the next generation came to be. Gyasi also doesn’t turn away from violence or horror, but it’s never gratuitous or romanticised.

And it’s so damn readable. The writing has moments of beauty but is mostly fairly stripped back, which works really well with the structure because complicated, less accessible writing together with a complex structure would have been too much, and the novel would have become style over substance. As it stands, it gets to be both.

It’s not a perfect novel. The earlier chapters felt richer than the later ones, and the very end was far too neat and contrived (I don’t believe Marjorie would have given the *spoiler* to *spoiler* because of what her *spoiler* meant to her).

BUT. But. This is a very readable, interesting, and important read that I’d urge you to pick up. It’s only Gyasi’s debut novel, so I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

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Best books of 2016

2016 was an odd reading year for me. I read 59 books, which is roughly average for me, maybe slightly below, but I seemed to read a lot of ‘okay’ books but not as many great ones. For some reason this has meant I’ve ended up with 4 ‘best-of’ books and 5 honourable mentions. All 9 are great through. In no particular order:

the vegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang (novel, Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This is a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life. It’s weird and beautifully written. Full review here.

hope-in-the-darkHope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (non-fiction)

This short book is about hope as activism, and describes different examples of how activism has worked, though sometimes over a long period of time, because “we can change the world because we have many times before.” It’s a little repetitive in places and I don’t agree with everything she says, but I love her writing style (I underlined so many sentences) and I think its central message is an important one, particularly as we head into 2017 – remember to be hopeful, and that hope means action, and that action does make a difference, even if you don’t see the larger changes in your lifetime. Full review here.

lolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov (novel)

Unsurprisingly, this was incredible. Disturbing, yes, but incredible. The language is lyrical and beautiful, and Nabokov is able to present this beautiful language coming from a narrator trying his best to justify himself, to make you see his side, but without making him any less repulsive. Monstrous and genius.

the-good-immigrantThe Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (non-fiction)

This essay collection is powerful, important, challenging, and very readable. It’s about what it means to be an immigrant of colour in Britain today; what it means to be ‘other’. There was only maybe one essay I didn’t think was as good as the others, so twenty out of twenty-one truly excellent essays is pretty amazing. If you read nothing else on this list, read this book.

And the five honourable mentions which didn’t quite make the list:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel) – This is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think could be any shorter. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth your time. Brutal and violent and messy and genius. It only didn’t make the list because for some reason I don’t feel the urge to thrust it into everyone’s hands like the others. Full review here.

Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd (non-fiction) – Absolutely fascinating biography of Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston lived a very full and varied life, and was in many ways quite a ‘modern’ woman. Boyd also writes beautifully and comprehensively, and I’d recommend this even if, like me, you haven’t read any Hurston before, as an interesting story about an incredible woman and life in the US in the early 1900s as a black female writer.

Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss (non-fiction) – The first essay (which begins as a discussion of the invention of the telephone and the fight to get telephone poles accepted by residents and turns into a discussion of the lynching of black people using telephone poles) has really stayed with me.

Peter and Alice by John Logan (play) – Really great fictional account of the real-life meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Peter Llewelyn Davies (the inspiration for Peter Pan). Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but there are also many moving and powerful scenes which make it well worth your time. Full review here.

Strong Female Protagonist: Book One by Brennan Lee Mulligan & Molly Ostertag (graphic novel – fiction) – A fun and enjoyable comic about a superhero trying to work out what really is the best way to save the world. She hangs up her cape to go to college but she can’t untangle herself from her previous life, or her fame/notoriety. It covers many of the same themes as Watchmen by Alan Moore, but in a slightly lighter way. I also particularly liked Feral’s arc, a superhero who can regenerate, who decides to remain in a constant state of surgery to donate organs, despite the fact she can have no anaesthesia.

Happy reading for 2017!

Posted in Graphic novels / comics, In translation, Non-fiction, Novels, Poetry & Plays, Wrap-ups | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

December reads 2016

grief-is-the-thing-with-the-feathersGrief is the Thing with the Feathers by Max Porter (poetry/novel)

Not really a poetry collection or a novel, but more something in between – it is a novel fragmented as life is fragmented by grief. It doesn’t always make immediate sense, particularly some of Crow’s sections, but it’s one to read in few sittings and just let the meaning/emotion emerge. Genius and excellent. Full review here.

hope-in-the-darkHope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (non-fiction)

This short book is about hope as activism, and describes different examples of how activism has worked, though sometimes over a long period of time, because “we can change the world because we have many times before.” It’s a little repetitive in places and I don’t agree with everything she says, but I love her writing style (I underlined so many sentences) and I think its central message is an important one – remember to be hopeful, and that hope means action, and that action does make a difference, even if you don’t see the larger changes in your lifetime. Full review here.

black-waveBlack Wave by Michelle Tea (novel)

This is definitely a novel of two halves. The first half is more of a fictionalised memoir, continuing on from Tea’s previous memoirs, but the second half is part apocalyptic fiction, part meta-discussion of memoir writing, part magical realism. I found it difficult to get into the first half, and didn’t click with the writing style at all, but I loved the second half. The writing flowed better and there were lots of interesting ideas which wove together really well. I can see the first half provides a kind of foundation and contrast, but I would have preferred a novel in just the second half’s style. I probably wont pick up her earlier memoir work, but if she writes anything else like the second half I would pick it up in a heartbeat.

the-old-king-in-his-exileThe Old King in His Exile by Arno Geiger (non-fiction, German in translation)

Translated by Stefan Tobler. This is a memoir of Geiger’s father’s developing Alzheimer’s, his father’s life, and his relationship to him. It’s written incredibly warmly, and you can really feel the deep love Geiger feels for his father. It’s funny in parts and moving in others, and I liked that the final chapter was almost just a collection of thoughts and reflections. But despite this something about it didn’t quite work as a whole for me. I’m not quite sure what.

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