31 January 2015

2014 in Books

Been meaning to do this since the year changed - a complete list of the books I read last year (60+ books, exceeding my goal of 52; at least I accomplished something last year, ahaha). Typical me, very few were actually published last year, and about half of them are re-reads. For 2015 I want to branch out a bit more, read contemporary stuff, Canadian and First Nations stuff, but of course older books too. I have a penchant for the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, so I'd like to explore the literature of those eras in more depth.

But for now, 2014 - the complete book list!

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett
Girls to the Front - Sara Marcus
Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell
Kicking the Sky - Anthony De Sa
The Crucible - Arthur Miller
Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
John Dies at the End - David Wong
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
The Wide Window; The Miserable Mill; The Austere Academy; The Ersatz Elevator - Lemony Snicket
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Sputnik Sweetheart - Haruki Murakami
No One Else Can Have You - Kathleen Hale
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
The Vile Village; The Hostile Hospital - Lemony Snicket
James Dean - George Perry
Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
Paris was Ours - ed. Penelope Rowlands
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum
Skagboys - Irvine Welsh
The Opposite of Loneliness - Marina Keegan
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
Van Gogh: a Life - Philip Callow
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Paris: a Biography of a City - Colin Jones
A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
The Carnivorous Carniva; The Slippery Slopel - Lemony Snicket
Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster - Steve Turner
Abarat - Clive Barker
The Grim Grotto; The Penultimate Peril - Lemony Snicket
How Should a Person Be? - Sheila Heti
The End - Lemony Snicket
Palo Alto - James Franco
John Lennon: the Life - Philip Norman
Diary - Chuck Palahniuk
A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
This Book is Full of Spiders - David Wong
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; Chamber of Secrets; Prisoner of Azkaban; Goblet of Fire; Order of the Phoenix; Half-Blood Prince; Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling
Fallout - Sadie Jones
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass - Lewis Carroll
The Magician's Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - CS Lewis

(I finished the Chronicles of Narnia in 2015, fyi.)

So, did I read a bunch of children's books in order to achieve my goal? Somewhat. I knew re-reading all those series would give me the numbers, but I had wanted to read them anyways. I hadn't read most of the Snicket and Narnia books since I had initially read them in my youth (ie: when I was a teenager), and it felt like forever since I had read some of the HP books, so I had a lovely year with them all. To contrast with those, I read denser books like Skagboys (the prequel to Trainspotting) and the John Lennon bio. Read some favourite authors, like Jane Austen and Haruki Murakami and Chuck Palahniuk and Terry Pratchett. Discovered a new favourite (David Wong!). Increased my appreciation for Sheila Heti. Read some YA fiction (Rainbow Rowell is actually a pretty decent writer). And completely confirmed my belief that James Franco is overrated (hated Palo Alto! The movie looks good and the soundtrack is stellar, but the book? Avoid it at all costs).

Standouts of the year (of the non-re-reads):

John Dies at the End, Sputnik Sweetheart, Skagboys, Diary, This Book is Full of Spiders. And I guess The Bell Jar too, even though I don't remember it all that well (which is probably for the best). The Opposite of Loneliness (which I have written about before) is worth mentioning if only for the title essay, which absolutely everyone should read (you can find it online).

Worst books: The Crucible (hate Arthur Miller), No One Else Can Have You, Palo Alto, Fallout. All a mix of poor writing and boring stories. And Arthur Miller is just so horribly sexist. The Van Gogh bio and the bio of Paris as a city were both boring for their own reasons too. Into the Wild, about Christopher McCandless's adventures, was an okay read, but it was very much focused on men. All the other adventurers mentioned in the book (whether real or fictional) were men. Even the imagery was centred around men (things compared to penises, but also things "sensually" described as breasts). It got a bit annoying.

Seriously, don't read this. Unless you enjoy bad writing and want to feel like you've been mildly harassed by a mall rat sk8ter boi, in which case have fun. 

It was a very mixed year. I learned that my gut is generally right in terms of knowing what books I'll like and what books I won't like, and I should probably listen to it a bit more. It's all well and good to read new/different things, but honestly, when reading for pleasure, if you aren't enjoying something then it's not worth the effort.

18 January 2015

Lullabies for Saturday Night (even though it's Sunday)

"...everyone was living a sort of fictional existence." (LfLC page 6)

Whether or not it's actually true, I feel like I have been posting much here lately, but I do have a very good reason, and her name is Heather O'Neill. I got her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals for Christmas, and it was absolutely phenomenal. I finished it in three days, I just couldn't stop reading. It's like magic. Often when I read a book, I have really high expectations. I expect that it will take me completely out of my own life and into another person's. I want to get caught up in their patterns and idiosyncrasies. It has to take me to a different level of reality. Perhaps I want novels to make me feel the way I felt when I was little, reading fairy tales. But in any case, Lullabies exceeded my expectations. I almost never say that a book is a "must read" but this is a MUST READ if there ever was one.

photo by Tom Mitchell

"I spotted a big rock on the ground. I picked it up and pretended it was an injured bird and held it in my hand and stroked it. I encouraged it to stay alive and whispered to it that it would fly again soon. Then I put it in my pocket with the other rocks I'd rescued." (LfLC page 12)

SF still from "Night Time, My Time"
"I was on the corner of Sherbrooke Street not knowing where to go. It started to snow and I watched the flakes light up like millions of tiny fireflies in the streetlights. Sometimes when you are standing still and it's snowing, you think you can hear music. You can't tell where it's coming from either. I wondered if we all really did have a soundtrack, but we just get so used to it that we can't hear it anymore, the same way that we block out the sound of our own heartbeat." (LfLC page 279)

source unknown
Shortly after reading LfLC, I went out and picked up O'Neill's second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, which is also a very good book (though a lot less happens plot-wise in comparison to LfLC, especially in the first half; it picks up a lot in the second half, though). The novels share a lot of similarities - the narrators are both eccentric young women relaying their coming of age stories set in the red light district of Montreal; they both have inconsistent parenting; and they both have to figure the world out for themselves. Some of it is partly reflective of O'Neill's own childhood/teenage-hood experiences growing up in a single parent household in Montreal (LfLC contains a short autobiography as well as some other little tidbits at the back of the book, which is in itself interesting to read). But the narrators are still very different people with very different stories, so you don't at all feel like you're reading the same book over again or anything like that.


still from IRL
"There is nothing as frustrating a being consumed with rage over someone and knowing that you aren't even on their mind. You want your enemy to be engaged in a struggle until the death with you. Otherwise you are fighting yourself. I mean we are all essentially only in wars against ourselves, but we don't like to be so painfully obvious." (TGwwSN page 37)

"Dreaming too big was the cause of much horror on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. The street was filled with people whose dreams had gone bust. It wasn't always drugs and bad childhoods that brought them this low. It was ambition. There was a whole group of fallen Icaruses sitting under the blazing fluorescent lights at the soup kitchen. Their jackets were half blown off by the fall." (TGwwSN 41)
SF by Petra Collins

"He doesn't believe in dinosaurs. For me that's a deal-breaker." (TGwwSN page 144)

12 January 2015

All in

At long last, everything everything everything has been submitted and received for my grad school applications. All the transcripts, in. All the writing samples, in. All the references letters, in. And all before the deadlines! Now begins the waiting game. Results will probably be out in March or early April, so I've got plenty of time to be nervous and think negative thoughts before I have to actually face up to my future. I'm still not sure which program is my first choice - it'd be nice to get into all of them, of course, and then make my decision from there. Being accepted feels better than being rejected.

7 January 2015

Book Review-ish: Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shampton, and 639 Others (in 500 pages) is described as "a conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities...on the subject of clothing, and how the garments we put on everyday define and shape our lives" (quoted from the inside flap). The conversations occur in different formats. Some are interviews or actual recorded conversation between friends (and in some cases strangers). Some are short essays reflecting on certain clothing related ideas/themes (ex: "The Mom Coat"). Some are poems, others are Wear Areas, where people reflect on different parts of their bodies. And of course there are the survey results (which I've found to be the most interesting because you get multiple perspectives on every question, and they're short, so it's very readable). There are also plenty of visual projects, from a spread of all the fake eyelashes that Amy Rose Spiegel wears in a week to "Thirty-Six Women" in which six strangers (including Molly Ringwald) are photographed wearing each other's favourite outfits).

In general, it's an interesting book, though not one that you would necessarily read from front to back. It's sort of like a coffee table book, where you can just pick it up whenever you feel like it, flip through it, and read whatever captures your attention.

Joyce Wall's lipstick blots, page 88 (not my scans)

A couple of pieces that have stood out to me so far are the interviews with Rookie Mag writer Amy Rose Spiegel and Reba Sikder, a young woman who survived the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. She was a garment worker in the factor and recounts her experience of being trapped under rubble for several days before finally escaping from the collapsed building.

"I wanted to say that I worked for this factory and this company, and I was making - including my overtime - $90 a month, but I had to work eight a.m. to ten p.m., sometimes overnight. That was seven days a week, thirty days a month. I want to say that I didn't receive any compensation. Moreover, I cannot say how many coworkers I left in that building, how many of them I lost. It was more like brothers and sisters, because we worked together. I can remember one whole line of sewing workers, they were just trapped - I saw them falling. I lost many, many of them. So I want compensation, and I want a safe working place for our workers. Just think about those workers who lost their limbs - how they will live. And think about the families who had only one person to earn, and they lost that person." (469-470)

Near the end of the interview she says that, even a year later, people still visit the site everyday to look for the remains of the loved ones they lost, because there are still bones amongst the rubble. The number of people who died is higher than the reported "official" number. It's heartbreaking to read her account, but of course also very important that is was included in this book.

Mary Mann's interview with Amy Rose is a good read in a different kind of way. ARS talks about the magic of her fake eyelashes (why she started wearing them, etc.) as well as finding power in femininity. She explains that she wants to project a kind of "undeniable, unimpeachable femininity" and that she'd "just like to be a cartoon." Mary asks her how they connect, and ARS says:

from ARS's instagram
"...it's an exaggeration. I understand that not all women embrace this exaggerated, stereotypical, Western femininity, but I find a really great power in embodying that. Because I used to deny it completely. I used to not wear makeup at all, and I though that to look like a woman is to not look smart, which I think a lot of women feel. I think to align yourself with really straightforward femininity can be a way of almost inviting people to take you less seriously. And I like to buck that. I want to be taken very seriously, but I also want this . . . (gestures at herself) you know what I mean. For me it's about a steadfast desire to make it a both instead of a versus. To be both of those things is sort of a power for me." (420-421)

Which for me is really interesting to read, because, I guess like a lot of women, I've thought a lot about femininity but have never really been sure about it all. There's so much pressure on girls and women to be both feminine and not-feminine - I don't even know how to describe it. There are so many conflicting things that we're expected to do and be, it gets overwhelming. Anyways, I enjoyed reading her perspective, as I always do.

Also noteworthy is the "Mothers as Others" project, where women sent in their favourite photos of their mothers (and also grandmothers) before they had children (and sometimes before they were married) and commented on how they felt about the pictures, sort of describing their mothers' auras or style. So there are all these pictures of fantastic-looking women dating anywhere from the 1940s-1970s (roughly). Some women were super stylish and obviously put a lot of thought into their appearances; some women were low-maintenance; some women just wanted to laugh and have a good time. It's really cool to look at all the pictures and see how clearly different they all are, and also to read their daughters' impressions of them.

But not everything in the book is quite as I wanted/expected it to be. For example, I had known beforehand that Tavi Gevinson had contributed to it, which I was excited about, but to be completely honest, her piece, "Colour Taxonomy," in which she describes twelve different colours, is a letdown. I think a lot of us have grown to expect a lot from Tavi, or at least stuff that is very thoughtful and reflective, but this piece reads like something she might've wrote when she was fifteen. It's kind of like a joke. This is how she describes green: "type yellow-green into Google and the first three suggestions are mucus, urine, and vaginal discharge. With dark-green you get stool, diarrhea, and vegetables. Emerald, however, is a universally perfect shade, and Tippi-Hendren-in-The-Birds mint is possibly the best colour visible to human eyes. If green were a film character, the actor would be Oscar-nominated for tackling such a multifaceted role" (377). Like, what? Okay, it is true about the Google search, but there's so much more to the colour green! Like, how about NATURE! All twelve descriptions read the same way: random comments + pop culture references. I feel like she could have done something much more interesting, even if she just filled out the survey.

Also a bit disappointed that there aren't many names that I recognize in the book, but that's hardly new (I generally don't know people). But, it does seem to me that many of them women have similar perspectives/lifestyles. Like, there is a lot of cultural diversity, which is excellent, but a lot of the women seem to be similar in age or in similar places in life, so it gets a bit repetitive. Like, they've got careers, they've got families or are happily child-less, they're at a comfortable place in which they can reflect on the clothes and style that they have accumulated over years (and years and years). Like, the bulk are probably 30-50 years old. I was hoping for more of a range. I suppose I can get the teen and 20s perspective from the internet, but it would've been nice to see more of it in the book. For instance, there is a section of survey results just by women in their 40s, so I feel like it would've made sense to do a section for each age bracket, because it would make for interesting comparisons. Though there is one survey by a five year old (I think that's her age; her mom did the survey with her), which is cool to read (she says that everything should have sparkles on it).

The writers: Heidi, Sheila, and Leanne.

Overall, despite my critiques, it is a nice book to have, because there is so much to explore and it can lead you to reflecting on things that you might not have before.