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31 December 2014 @ 09:29 pm
publicBooks of 2014: II  
Happy New Year (when it comes)!!

I'm pretty excited about 2015 right now, sitting on the couch feeling cosy and yet sort of new. I've made a lot of progress this year: I found a job that I quite like, I've been seeing a counsellor and with his help am doing better mentally, I've gone back to some favourite hobbies that had slipped away, and I've kept trying to do the things that I think are important in spite of frequent setbacks. There were many scary times when I was so terrified of things that I thought I couldn't make it, or when I became paralysed or frantic. I'm proud to have made it through that, and I feel good about the coming year, hopeful that I'll keep getting better.

12. A Brief History of Misogyny by Jack Holland
“In this powerful book, the highly respected writer and commentator Jack Holland sets out to answer a daunting question: how do you explain the oppression and brutalization of half the world’s population by the other half, throughout history? The result takes the reader on an eye-opening journey through centuries, continents and civilizations as it looks at both historical and contemporary attitudes to women. Holland’s spotlight falls impartially on the Church, witch-hunts, sexual theory, Nazism and pro-life campaigners and on today’s developing world, where women are increasingly and disproportionately at risk because of radicalized religious belief, famine, war and disease. Well-informed and researched, highly readable and often entertaining, this is no outmoded feminist polemic, but a refreshingly straightforward investigation into an ancient, pervasive and enduring injustice. It deals with the fundamentals of human existence − sex, love, violence − that have always shaped our lives.”

This book sort of does and sort of doesn’t answer the puzzle which it sets out to solve - basically he pointed out that we don’t have the kinds of records of ancient civilisations that would allow us to make more than wild guesses about Stone Age gender power relations. So he traced violence against, and violent attitudes to, women back as far as he thought was legitimate, which is fair enough in theory, but why did he choose ancient Greece as the cut-off point? I’ve never studied history, but even so am pretty sure that we have records from other parts of the world from earlier times... His tracing of the influence of woman-ruining-everything creation myths (Pandora, Eve) from then until now was convincing, however, and his interpretations of various events were really interesting and thought-provoking.

13. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
“A man with no eyes. No eyes at all. Two tunnels in his head... Somewhere − some time − there’s a tangled ball of evil and spite, of hatred and malice, that has woken up. And it’s waking up all the old stories too - stories about evil old witches...”

I had so much fun reading this, reminding me why I’m trying to make more time for books. Man, it was hilarious - I laughed aloud so many times, especially at the Feegles :D On the other hand, it deals with some really dark themes: abuse, scapegoating, mob thinking; and some less dark but still very serious: expectations, not knowing how to do the right thing. Many parts of it were really thought-provoking, and I had a couple of quiet epiphanies about media representations that I’ve just accepted as the norm.

14. Reef by Romesh Guneskera
“Reef is a love story set in a spoiled paradise. It is told by Triton, who at the age of eleven goes to work as a houseboy to Mister Salgado, a marine biologist obsessed by swamps, sea movements and the island’s disappearing reef. Triton learns to polish silver; to mix a love cake with ten eggs, creamed butter and fresh cashew nuts; and to steam the exotic parrot fish for his master’s lover.”

I’m pretty sure that this was recommended by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in an interview published at the end of Half of a Yellow Sun, and I can certainly see some similarities between the two books − namely, the uneducated but eager-to-learn houseboy going to live with the enigmatic professor, and the gradual change in their relationship as the boy grows older. This coming of age − discovering that people, and the world, and yourself are not quite what you thought they were − is really interesting, in that the reader has to reconsider assumptions as the characters do. I think this is also the first book set in Sri Lanka that I’ve read − it’s not a country about which I know a great deal, so it was interesting to glean some information new to me (such as the fact that Sri Lanka was the first modern country to have a female head of government). The thing that’s stayed with me longest about this book is the kind of dreamy atmosphere, where the sea has soaked through everything.

15. How We Should Rule Ourselves by Alasdair Gray and Adam Tomkins
“This pamphlet is for anyone alarmed by the present British government. It argues that the component nations of the United Kingdom can become true democracies only by declaring themselves republics.”

This is still not something about which I’m incredibly passionate, but nevertheless, having a monarch in an age when we’re supposedly governing ourselves is contradictory. As the Queen doesn’t have any powers which really amount to anything, it can be argued that she doesn’t get in the way of democracy, but is just around as a figurehead and draw for tourists. We don’t need a figurehead though, or we shouldn’t - we should be confident enough in ourselves and other citizens to be leading ourselves on all levels, including symbolically. And there is actually no way to prove claims that the royal family make more money for Britain than they are given from our taxes, as these claims are based on assumptions that people are visiting various cathedrals and cities because of their connections to the royals (e.g. St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, where someone royal was married quite recently, but which was being visited long before that). I think that until we’ve got rid of all vestiges of feudalism in this country (concentrated land ownership, the House of bloody Lords...), we’re kidding ourselves that we’re civilised.

16. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming -- a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.
One of the most talked-about books of the new millennium, American Gods is a kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. It is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece.

Just after reading this, I was irritated by various things, particularly the treatment of female characters, but I find that reading Neverwhere has made me appreciate American Gods a lot more (mostly because it showed me that he can write other female characters). Now I can concentrate on the epic feeling of the book, the gathering storm which you can feel through the rhythm of the writing. It’s a really fascinating premise which the characters of the pitiful-seeming yet powerful gods live up to by being full and intriguing people with strange existences. The mystery had just the right balance for me, where I saw what was coming with some plotlines, and so could feel pleased with myself, heh heh, and where others were a total surprise.

17. Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, edited by Scott Hames
"Over the past three decades, it is commonly argued, Scotland achieved 'a form of cultural autonomy in the absence of its political equivalent' (Murray Pittock) - a transformation led by its novelists, poets and dramatists. Why, then, is the debate over Scottish independence so much less passionate and imaginative than these writers or their politics?
We are deluged by facile arguments and factoids designed to 'manage' the Scottish question, or to rig the terrain on which it is contested. Before we get used to the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more honest and nuanced thinking about what 'independence' means in and for Scottish culture. This book sets the question of independence within the more radical horizons which inform the work of 27 writers and activists based in Scotland. Standing adjacent to the official debate, it explores questions tactfully shirked or sub-ducted within the media narrative of the Yes/No campaigns, and opens a space in which the most difficult, most exciting prospects of statehood can be freely stated."

I think this was an important book to read in tandem with the more factual (though still biased) ones. It was just quite refreshing to hear people voicing doubts, being upfront enough to say that we couldn’t be sure what would happen, that it was better to answer the question, “will Scotland still be in the EU?” with, “nobody knows, actually!” than to make out that it was certain one way or the other. When it’s the philosophy that’s being talked about, it all seems more simple - the pro-independence debate was about empowered ordinary people running the country, rather than being dictated to.

18. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a powerful story of love, race and identity.
As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?
Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Americanah is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters, in all her books, are the most realistic that I’ve ever read about, I think. I’m not exactly sure where this comes from, but I think it’s a combination of nothing about their personalities being exaggerated in order to make a point, but rather being a truly human mixture of contradictions; knowing them sort of from the outside, as close, close friends, but not by actually seeing through their eyes, so that they seem to be independent individuals, rather than creations of the author or the reader; and her lucid, vibrant writing style. Her writing style just amazes me; I find it very beautiful. She seems to use words as a container for or path to some incredible truth. Sometimes the truth is very upfront, as in Ifemelu’s blog entries about race in America, and sometimes it’s subtle, just about people and how we make our lives. In this way Americanah is an epic, spanning all these levels of human existence, from identity to relationships to national and global politics.

19. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
“In 1982, having sold his jazz bar to devote himself to writing, Murakami began running to keep fit. A year later, he’d completed a solo course from Athens to Marathon, and now, after dozens of races, not to mention triathlons and a slew of critically acclaimed books, he reflects upon the influence the sport has had on his life and on his writing.
Equal parts travelogue, training log and reminiscence, this revealing memoir cover his four-month preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon and settings ranging from Tokyo’s Jinju Gaien gardens, where he once shared the course with an Olympian, to the Charles River in Boston, among young women who outpace him. Through this marvellous lens of sport emerges a cornucopia of memories and insights: the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer, his greatest triumphs and disappointments, his passion for vintage LPs, and the experience, after fifty, of seeing his race times improve and then fall back.
By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is rich and revelatory, both for fans of this masterful writer and for the vast number of athletes who find similar satisfaction in distance running.”

I remember finding this book in an amazing second-hand bookshop in London, and thinking, “pff, why would I want to read a book about running?” Heh. The times when you find such concrete proof of how things have changed in your life are very interesting. I started running in January of 2013, and was a bit surprised to see part of my reasoning in the pages of this book: “An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body” (p98) (I don’t actually agree with this, especially as it’s just not possible for some people, but that’s how I was thinking!). I haven’t kept it up constantly - I periodically overextend myself and get various injuries, but I’m really happy with the fact that, after rest periods, I’ve always started up again. This time round it’s going really well. I’ve been watching videos about good technique, and am feeling stronger; I’m tired after a run, but my muscles no longer hurt, when I used to barely be able to walk the next day. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was pretty inspiring in terms of making me feel good about just quietly and slowly plugging away, not needing to have sudden amazing results that I can tell people about, but just doing this for my own enjoyment and wellbeing. I think he expands this calm and unpretentious philosophy to life in general - there’s no need for flashiness, just trying to do good things on whatever scale you can.

20. Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmermann
“The Internet has led to revolutions across the world but a crackdown is now in full swing. As whole societies move online, mass surveillance programs are now being deployed globally. Our civilization has reached a crossroads. In one direction lies a future promoting ‘privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful’; in the other is an Internet that transfers power over entire populations to an unaccountable complex of spy agencies and their transnational corporate allies.
Cypherpunks are activists who advocate the mass use of strong cryptography as a way of protecting our basic freedoms against this onslaught. Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of and visionary behind WikiLeaks, has been a leading voice in the cypherpunk movement since the 1990s. Now, in a timely and important new book, Assange brings together a group of rebel thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyberspace to discuss whether the Internet will emancipate of enslave all of us.”

I don’t want to support Assange, not because of WikiLeaks, which I don’t have a very strong opinion on but vaguely support, but because of the sexual abuse allegations. You have to believe the victim, and it makes me furious that there are people on the left scrambling to make excuses for Assange just because he’s done something admirable. Good deeds don’t magically erase bad ones. I was given this book, and it was interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people for this reason. It was inspiring in terms of making me think about the usual reasons given for surveillance of all kinds - “if you don’t have anything to hide, what’s the problem?” “We have to catch abusive people.” “It’s for your safety.” I’m mildly amazed to discover what total bullshit all of these are!

21. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“Three male explorers stumble on a community of women living deep in the Amazon rainforest, in a society without class divisions, war, greed, lust or hatred. This is a material world that encompasses science and technology on one hand, and the beauty and simplicity of a pastoral life on the other. It is also a world that places human social values centre-stage.
Written in 1915 by the author of the classic feminist story The Yellow Wallpaper, this tantalising and provocative account of a female utopia has been called ‘a woman’s answer to HG Wells’. Infused with humour and hope, it remains fuel for dreams of change today.”

As time has passed since I read this, I can see more and more clearly the less savoury aspects of it: the assumptions that all women are maternal and uninterested in sex as anything other than procreation, that lesbians or bisexual women don’t exist, and, most unpleasantly, that disabled people can’t be useful to society. On the one hand, this book does show an amazing possible society, which is quite inspirational, where everyone appears to be valued (but disability has been ‘bred out’...), where the rest of the natural world is respected, where people have a deep relationship with the earth, and where one-upmanship is seen as pointless. On the other hand, it’s creepy sides are bad just for themselves, and also because they’re a failure to be creative enough to see how disability and more than one sexuality could fit into that kind of society.
Mood: accomplished
Music: Fireworks