2019 in Books, Articles & Links | February
Certainty – Madeleine Thien
I enjoyed ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ so much that I borrowed this and Dogs at the Perimeter from the library too.
I didn’t find Certainty as tightly written as Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and nor did I connect with the characters in the same way, but it’s still a good book. It’s set between Malaysia in the 1940s and Canada in the present day, and follows the lives of Matthew and Ani from their experience of the Japanese occupation of Sandakan to adulthood in Canada and the Netherlands. I felt that there were sections and narratives that could have been left out without the reader missing too much, potentially allowing for stronger character development in other areas. That’s not to say I found the book too long, just that I didn’t feel all of the pieces of the story fit together quite like they could have.
The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain
235 pages of pure melancholy. Set in Switzerland during and after World War 2, The Gustav Sonata follows the friendship and lives of Anton and Gustav who meet as five year olds on Anton’s first day at nursery school. I felt it started strong, but then drifted for quite a while. I finished it as it was an easy read, but it’s not particularly memorable.
Dogs at the Perimeter – Madeleine Thien
All three of the Madeleine Thien novels I’ve read tell the same story with a different backdrop. The central theme seems to be how individuals cope with traumatic experiences such as war, state repression and, in Dogs at the Perimeter, genocide. Dogs at the Perimeter is split between Canada and Cambodia, and tells two intertwined stories. The first is concerned with how Janie escaped from Cambodia as a child and made her way to Canada, and the second is her friend Hiroji’s attempts to find his brother who went missing in the 70s while working for the Red Cross in Vietnam and Cambodia. There were large sections of the book where I really had to concentrate on who was speaking, and whether they were recounting events in the present day, in the past, or alternative realities that might have been. It felt quite dreamlike as a result, especially with the beautiful prose which Madeleine Thien is so skilled at creating.
In The Shadow of No Towers – Art Spiegelman
I put a request in at the library for this one after reading the first volume of Maus last month. It’s a strange book, for several reasons. It’s huge, for a start, and the pages are made of cardboard rather than paper. It’s designed to be read vertically, too, like a newspaper. It features Art Spiegelman’s serialised comics about his experience, memories and reaction to the September 11th attacks on the twin towers in New York City. The first half of the book is taken up with his large, double page spreads, and the second half features comics from the early 20th century together with an essay about the history of newspaper comics as a format.
I found the storyline and artwork a bit fractured and hard to follow, but a very honest portrayal of his experience. Afterall, our memories aren’t clear and linear, and it’s very hard to make sense of an experience like 9/11. The history of newspaper comics was interesting, though mostly separate from the subject at hand.
Bone I // Out From Boneville – Jeff Smith
I really enjoyed the artwork, but didn’t particularly like the story or captions. It’s a little bit too slapstick for me and I rolled my eyes at Fone Bone’s reaction to Thorn when he first meets her. I really struggle with the way women are portrayed in fantasy as a genre, it’s always the same and I find that even female authors and artists are guilty of peddling the same old tropes. I probably won’t bother with the rest of the series.
Marzi – Marzena Sowa & Sylvain Savoia
Marzena Sowa was born in Poland in 1979 and Marzi is an episodic memoir of her childhood in the last years of state socialism. I loved the art style, Sylvain really brought Marzi’s memories to life. Although parts of it are sad as life was very difficult in 1980s Poland following the introduction of Martial Law in 1981, it was also really funny, as Marzena captures the spirit of childhood so well. It’s really hard to remember what it’s like being a child once you’re an adult, but Marzena and Sylvain do this beautifully. The scenes where Marzi is grappling with catholicism and the concept of an all knowing, all seeing god are particularly funny.
Maus II – Art Spiegelman
Maus II takes up Art’s father’s story from arriving at Auschwitz in 1944 until his reunion with his wife and Art’s mother in Sosnowiec after the war. Even more of the panels deal with Art’s strained relationship with his father, while the panels that retell Vladek’s experience in the camps are brutal. The comic strip format is so effective, which is something that really surprised me as I didn’t think it could / would be so moving.
Spirited Away – Hayao Miyazaki
I love the film and so when I saw a copy of Volume 1 of the manga in the library I couldn’t help myself. It doesn’t add anything new to the story but I really enjoyed being able to look at the artwork in more detail.
I read a lot and as I’ve said before, the reason for that is because I freely abandon books I don’t like or get on with. This month, there have been a fair few I’ve started and abandoned. Here they are, with a brief explanation of why I let them go. I’m trying not to be too negative even though some of these left me exasperated, as the internet is full of negativity and I don’t feel the need to add to the pile. Besides, what I don’t like, someone else might love.
Names for the Sea – Sarah Moss
A travel memoir from a year spent working in Iceland as an academic during the financial crisis. It started well, and she writes beautifully but, amongst other things, her moaning (about motherhood, the weather, the food, the pay) became too much for me and I decided to call it quits at around page 150. A low point for me was when the author deemed herself too intelligent to enjoy watching the northern lights for an extended period of time.
Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron
I just wasn’t in the mood for this when I started it and knew that it would be something I’d let drag on for weeks on end.
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
The story of two half sisters who grow up on the Gold Coast / Ghana in the 18th century. One marries a slave trader, one is taken by the slave trade. The story then follows them and their families to the present day. It sounded promising, and it’s very ambitious, but I think it’s too ambitious for the length of the book. Each generation’s story is told across two chapters, one for each side of the family, which leaves very little time for character development. New characters are brought in and you need to consult the family tree at the front to work out who the new storyline is about, and it’s just hard to feel anything for them despite the horrors they go through. I gave up on page 77 as the story just felt unfinished and rushed. It’s a good concept, but felt like more of an outline for a novel than the finished article.
Mythos – Stephen Fry
I really enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology last year and so I thought I’d give Stephen Fry’s Mythos a read too. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t for me though. I don’t like the way it’s written, it’s too chatty and I feel like he’s trying too hard to be funny. I can see how others may enjoy that style, but it’s not for me. I just wanted to read the stories without the author’s personality getting in the way too much and was hoping it would be more like Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths.
This month has been a good reminder for me of why I borrow rather than buy the vast majority of my books. If I’d bought all the books I’ve abandoned I would have felt the need to finish them for the sake of it, which isn’t much fun.
Articles // Projects // Links
I love Ari Seth Cohen’s ongoing photography project ‘Advanced Style’ documenting older people’s style and fashion choices. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see older folk living full, creative lives and makes me feel excited rather than terrified of ageing. I don’t plan to cut my hair short and wear long skirts and sensible shoes as I get older, and so it’s brilliant seeing other people who are on the same wavelength.
Not something to read, but something to play. I stumbled upon the work of Atelier Sentô this month and downloaded their game ‘After School‘. The storyline and gameplay isn’t very inspiring but the artwork and music make up for it. The game is handpainted in watercolour, and really pretty. I wish all computer games looked this good.
A really interesting and myth shattering article / book excerpt about gender and the brain.