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07 January 2017 @ 09:18 pm
publicBooks of 2016 - IV  
31. X-Men: Fantômes by Brian Wood, Terry Dodson, and various others
« Après La Bataille de l’Atome, la formation entièrement féminine des X-Men est de retour. Tandis qu’un nouveau membre rejoint le groupe, la redoutable Lady Deathstrike réunit sa propre équipe de criminelles au sein de la Sororité. Afin de neutraliser les X-Men et asservir le monde, Deathstrike et ses associées partent alors à la recherche d’un puissant allié... »

I really enjoyed this! It was cool to see the Dodsons’ art in another universe, and again I liked their very human style – their people are all made of (mostly-)realistic curves. Nevertheless, I can’t help but compare it unfavourably with Coipel’s art in the first volume of this series, which was actually a really interesting exercise in terms of realising what it is that I’m looking for in this kind of art. For a start, that incredible vibrancy of colour and clever use of shade is unmatched, and I also find Coipel’s faces (shapes, features, expressions) to be more varied, with each character being recognisably and reliably different from the others. Terry Dodson has more of a stock face with tweaks, which also expresses fewer emotions. The approach to backgrounds is also quite different, and I prefer Coipel’s style of different layers, with some detail in a mid-ground adding interest and life, and then a quite vague and hazy backdrop, in contrast with Dodson’s usual two layers, the background one of which is sometimes a bit too strident. This is linked to the layout too, with Coipel playing around and sometimes having the focal point in the mid-ground, or in both fore- and mid-ground, as well as atypical page-layouts, such as overlap between panels. The storyline was fun, particularly as I’m still new in the X-Men world, and hadn’t previously met any of the characters introduced in this volume. I’m intrigued by the fact that I actually found Lady Deathstrike quite likable, and I thought the means of her comeback were pretty cool (other comebacks became a bit eyebrow-raising…). I like Karima Shapandar (for some reason, ‘classic Gryffindor’ always comes to mind when I’m thinking about her character); it would have been nice to see even more development of her character. And I love the tentative beginnings of a story about Roxy’s sexuality (and self-esteem).

32. 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
“Welcome to 44 Scotland Street, home to some of Edinburgh's most colourful characters. There's Pat, a twenty-year-old who has recently moved into a flat with Bruce, an athletic young man with a keen awareness of his own appearance. Their neighbour, Domenica, is an eccentric and insightful widow. In the flat below are Irene and her appealing son Bertie, who is the victim of his mother’s desire for him to learn the saxophone and Italian–all at the tender age of five.
Love triangles, a lost painting, intriguing new friends, and an encounter with a famous Scottish crime writer are just a few of the ingredients that add to this delightful and witty portrait of Edinburgh society, which was first published as a serial in The Scotsman newspaper.”

I bought my mum, a big fan of this series, tickets for the two of us to see Alexander McCall Smith speak in the Book Festival this summer, without having read any of his books myself. The talk was hilarious and very warm-hearted, and I came away with the impression that he’s just a decent person. He’d read an excerpt from the latest Scotland Street volume, which was very funny, and also quite poignant, and piqued my interest. I’m actually glad that I’d heard him speak before starting on the series – at certain points I could really see his personality shining through, and imagine how he would have read the passage, or paused to giggle at his own joke as he did in the session :) I didn’t get into the book immediately, as I didn’t really like any of the characters, except for Bertie, and that was actually more because of what Saffron’s told me about him over the years than how he was being introduced. But various people grew on me relatively quickly (Domenica’s pretty great), and the storylines and musings about life and Scottish/Edinburgh culture became very interesting. Various different styles of humour also began to weave together in a really well-balanced way – the absurd, irony, cheekiness, and a sort of charming, child-like glee. In the end I found it to be a light and funny read that also dealt quite thoughtfully with central human questions.

33. Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones
“When Andrew Hope’s magician grandfather dies, he leaves his house and field-of-care to his grandson who spent much of his childhood there. Andrew has forgotten much of this, but he remembers the very colourful stained-glass window in the kitchen door, which it is important to protect.
Into this mix comes young Aidan Cain, who turns up from his foster home asking for safety. Exactly who he is and why he’s there is unclear, but there is a strong connection between the two and a mystery to be solved.”

This was my first re-read of Enchanted Glass, which luckily meant that I'd forgotten a lot of what happens and had plenty of surprises. It reminds me of The Pinhoe Egg (another one that I'm looking forward to re-reading!) in terms of the relationship between the magical and the normal, and it made me think of My Neighbour Totoro too (this is probably also because a recent customer in the shop had the most amazing Studio Ghibli sleeve tattoo, including a little Totoro playing the ocarina), and the idea that there are magical beings living hidden all over the place, which we can only see when we're open-minded children. Some of her ideas here are typically fantastic, like the counterparts, and the logical way in which Andrew approaches magic. The twists of personality are really interesting, with a good few of the characters having more to them than first meets the eye, becoming more and more likable and simply human, though one reveal at the end is particularly unexpected and more disquieting. I hadn’t remembered how hilarious it is – I laughed aloud so many times at little touches of absurdity or mischievousness. And I love books with enchanted houses as their settings, especially if they’re magical in this comforting, idyllic way: a refuge.

34. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
"You are now a discard. We have no further use for you in play. You are free to walk the Bounds, but it will be against the rules for you to enter play in any world. If you succeed in returning Home, then you may enter play again in the normal manner."
When Jamie unwittingly discovers the sinister, dark-cloaked Them playing games with humans' lives, he is cast out to the boundaries of the worlds. Clinging to Their promise that if he can get Home he is free, he becomes an unwilling Random Factor in Their deadly, eternal game.
Jamie travels alone until he teams up with Helen and Joris, determined to beat Them at Their own game. But Their rules don't allow Homeward Bounders to work together.

I think I would have had a different reading experience if I hadn’t been semi-spoilered by Reflections on the Magic of Writing – no plot details were revealed, yet I read the book differently, knowing that it was unlike most of her other books in a certain way… It was still great, but I think it would have been even better, had I gone into with no expectations. Meh. It was certainly a good example of twisty, loophole-y, wordplay-dependent DWJ (the best kind, though I think this was nevertheless a Tier III), where I have to re-read sections after finishing in order to untangle gnarls of logic. The worlds had the same kind of set-up as in Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, which is a system that I really appreciate. Actually, it fits with that of the Chrestomanci series too, now that I think about it… I hadn’t realised that she was using the same structure!! :o I haven’t fully mentally explored how sinister They are – I think that I should have been more disturbed by these unknown, cloaked, unreachable figures who control all of our lives and don’t give a damn, yet I feel strangely detached from this lonely story of powerlessness. Maybe it’s because I’ve been harbouring fears of something like this since I was around seven or eight, when I began trying to dress extremely quickly and logically (clothes with greatest surface area first) so that if I were suddenly picked up and thrown into another world, at least I would have protection from whatever elements existed there. Maybe it’s because it’s too scary for me to process right now, tapping as it does into that old fear, and questions about whether life has meaning, whether society can change for the better.

35. Shrill by Lindy West
“Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible--like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you--writer and humourist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but.
From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humour and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhoea.
With inimitable good humour, vulnerability, and boundless charm, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss--and walk away laughing. Shrill provocatively dissects what it means to become self-aware the hard way, to go from wanting to be silent and invisible to earning a living defending the silenced in all caps.”

This begins hilariously – I almost cried laughing – and ends thought-provokingly. I especially liked her discussion of free speech and how proponents of getting to say whatever you want to anyone you want are always throwing complete red herrings, like censorship, into the ring. I'd like to read more about this subject, but I do think it's telling that everyone who's said things to me like, "but he doesn't mean [racist slur] in a bad way," or, "that's their responsibility to get over what I've said," has been a white dude. She had interesting things to say about the importance of power relations in this debate. Sometimes her openness and vulnerability made me shy away, but that was part of the point, I think – to say that's she's strong enough to show her weak spots. Her fat acceptance pieces were great, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, always giving the finger. I especially remember her pointing out that another, thinner person might make it to the top of the hill before she does, but that they couldn't climb while carrying her, and she can.

36. La vie des elfes by Muriel Barbery
« Les mains de la petite étaient fines et gracieuses, plutôt larges pour une enfant qui n'avait fêté ses dix ans qu'en novembre, et extrêmement déliées. Elle les tint au dessus des touches comme il fallait pour entamer le morceau mais les laissa en suspens pendant un instant où les deux hommes eurent le sentiment qu'un vent ineffable balayait l'espace de la nef. Puis elle les posa. Alors une tempête se fit dans l'église, une vraie tempête qui fit s'envoler les feuilles et rugit comme une vague qui monte et retombe sur l'amer des rochers. Enfin, l'onde passa et la petite joua. Elle joua lentement, sans regarder ses mains et sans se tromper une seule fois. Alessandro tourna pour elle les pages de la partition et elle continua de jouer avec la même inexorable perfection, à la même vitesse et avec la même justesse, jusqu'à ce que le silence se fasse dans l'église transfigurée. »
Quoi de commun entre la petite Maria, qui vit dans un village reculé de Bourgogne, et une autre fillette, Clara qui, à la même époque, après avoir grandi dans les Abruzzes, est envoyée à Rome afin d'y développer un don prodigieux pour la musique? Peu de choses, apparemment.
Pourtant, il existe entre elles un lien secret : chacune, par des biais différents, est en contact avec le monde des elfes - monde de l'art, de l'invention, du mystère, mais aussi de l'osmose avec la nature, qui procure à la vie des hommes sa profondeur et sa beauté. Or une grave menace, venue d'un elfe dévoyé, pèse sur l'espèce humaine, et seules Maria et Clara sont en mesure, par leurs dons conjugués, de déjouer ses plans. Les deux fillettes, une fois réunies, auront à mener un long combat... »

I wouldn’t exactly say that I regret having read this, as it was great French practice, but it was a bit of a disappointment after being blown away by L’élégance du hérisson. The self-conscious style that worked perfectly there was just purple prose here, partly because it was in the third person, and so wasn’t conveying the awkwardness and self-focus of the characters, and partly because Barbery had simply upped the ante with her immensely long, romantic descriptions... Some of these were very beautiful, but the effect was cumulative, and as I read further they seemed more and more sentimental. Her portrayals of idyllic poverty and the noble hunt also irritated me – poverty is miserable (at least she did sort of address this at the end) and shooting defenceless creatures is in no way honourable. Various scenes of melodrama showed that you were supposed to care more about certain characters than I was able to, though I did really like Clara and Maria. My expectations probably played a part in my disappointment – I was anticipating the same kind of thought-provoking discussion as in L’élégance du hérisson, but La vie des elfes was more a fantasy adventure with some moralising thrown in. One idea that I liked was that the purpose of school is to teach you a thought system which allows you to communicate your experience to others, and I did find interesting some of her exploration of the meaning, purpose, and causes of war and peace.

37. Understanding Panic Attacks and Overcoming Fear by Roger Baker
“This highly authoritative yet practical book helps the reader towards an in-depth understanding of panic. It is essential reading for sufferers, their friends, and family. In clear and concise language it describes a psychological self-help program for panic sufferers.”

This was really fascinating, and made a lot of sense. I read it through quickly, to get an overview of the theory, with the plan to go over it again more slowly, doing all of the exercises. I did just one during this first read, which was to remember my first panic attack, and then look back over the previous months to see what factors could have built up enough stress to cause it. This seems so obvious, but apparently I’m not alone in not having done it before – most people just look to the previous few days, or weeks at the most, not realising that it can be events of even years ago finally causing an explosion. As the author suggests it will be, it was actually very calming to see how much was going on at that time, and that it’s not at all surprising that it became too much. He goes through why your body reacts in this way, which is also completely logical – some part of you perceives a threat, and initiates the fear response in order to protect you. For a lot of panic attack-sufferers, this fear response (fast-beating heart, sweating, etc) becomes the threat, or part of it, as it feels as though it will be lethal (fast-beating heart seems to = onset of heart attack, etc). The main exercise makes sense, but is pretty intimidating: deliberately putting yourself in a situation that will make you panic, then letting your panic attack continue naturally, so that you realise that it can’t end in the way that you fear (for me, this is irreparable craziness). I think this has to be my next step, as I’ve stabilised myself well by avoiding situations that I think will overwhelm me, but this does mean that I’m not living life to the full. I have to work out what the balance is, as this is all mostly in the realm of social interaction (work too, though), and some of my distance from that is actually a good thing, as a finally-accepting-herself introvert.

38. L’Arabe du futur : Une jeunesse au moyen orient by Riad Sattouf
« Une enfance dans la Libye de Kadhafi et la Syrie d’Hafez al-Assad.
Né d’un père syrien et d’une mère bretonne, Riad Sattouf grandit d’abord à Tripoli, en Libye, où son père vient d’être nommé professeur. Issu d’un milieu pauvre, féru de politique et obsédé par le panarabisme, Abdel-Razak Sattouf élève son fils Riad dans le culte des grands dictateurs arabes, symboles de modernité et de puissance virile.
En 1984, la famille déménage en Syrie et rejoint le berceau des Sattouf, un petit village près de Homs. Malmené par ses cousins (il est blond, cela n’aide pas…), le jeune Riad découvre la rudesse de la vie paysanne traditionnelle. Son père, lui, n’a qu’une idée en tête : que son fils Riad aille à l’école syrienne et devienne un Arabe moderne et éduqué, un Arabe du futur.
L’Arabe du futur sera publié en trois volumes. Ce premier tome couvre la période 1978-1984. »

The perspective is really interestingly done, and quite disorientating: very convincingly child-like, focussing on the seemingly random things that claim children’s attention, but with all the elements that an adult would look for to judge the situation in the background. Looking out at the world from the point of view of this tiny person was claustrophobic, even depressing. Life seemed meaningless and barren, all of the family and friends and acquaintances just powerlessly playing the parts allotted to them. The world is very bewildering when you first enter it, blundering around as strings of things happen to you for no discernible reason, but that stage is so often portrayed positively, in terms of freedom and innocence. Here, the darker, lonelier side of that lost feeling is ever present. Part of the reason that this was so uncomfortable is that it makes clear that adults aren’t as different from children as we imagine – we’re still struggling to make sense of why and how we’re here, afraid, in pain, powerless. The matte, vibrant colours of the backgrounds (bright red, blue, or yellow, depending on the country) and the strong black lines played their part in creating this overwhelming sense of isolation and emptiness. For all that, it was sometimes quite funny, in unexpected ways (for some reason, the streams of plastic bags slowly blowing past always made me chuckle). And it was great to read about the details of their lives in Libya and Syria, the food, the landscapes and atmospheres.

39. Casque de feu by Robin McKinley, translated by Jeanne Bouniort
« Quand Aérine la rousse casse la vaisselle royale, elle ne sait pas la réparer par magie, comme le fait une vraie princesse. Est-ce parce que sa mère était sorcière ? Elle est née pour d'autres magies.
Aérine préfère son cheval aux gens de la Cour, et s'entraîne avec lui à chasser le dragon. Son destin, c'est la vie dangereuse, le mystère, l'amour, la victoire sur la Mort. On l'appellera Casque de feu. »

Wow, I have very mixed feeling about this… For the first three quarters of the book, I was absolutely loving it, happily revelling in nostalgia with a feeling of slightly embarrassed yet gleeful self-indulgence: the heroine with untameable red hair, her loyal horse with whom she seems to converse, her semi-secret fencing lessons; totally archetypal YA fantasy, and an actual early example too (published in the 80s [I looked for this book everywhere in the late 90s, to no avail, and then stumbled across it in translation in a second-hand bookshop in Toulouse: triumph!]). I was thinking about how important this kind of wish-fulfilment actually is, in terms of showing girls that they can be the ones having adventures, which this book in particular does unusually well, as Aérine works incredibly hard to achieve her aims. I really liked that she ends up with blisters, spends hours practising, and years searching for answers – what a hopeful message, in contrast to the usual one, which seems to be that only those who start out special can get anywhere. And her adventures are serious page-turners that I could hardly wait to get back to, and which I daydreamed about when I couldn’t be reading. Her pain, embarrassment, and loneliness at not being accepted by her father’s court were also well-explored. In those early chapters, how can you not love her as she (also in wonderful YA fantasy tradition) swings between cringing away from situations that she knows will be painful and angrily rising to her unpleasant cousins’ bait? I was taken back to the time when I read so many books like this, probably between the ages of ten and fourteen, and I felt affection for that girl too. Then, towards the end of the book, McKinley just shoves in too many new things, to the detriment of those that she had been building up previously. Where before the characters’ personalities and emotions were detailed in enough depth that I cared about them, Luthe and all storylines to do with him were strangely two-dimensional (maybe I could grant him two and half dimensions, if I were being generous…), which meant that events probably supposed to be dramatic and heart-rending left me making a conscious effort to dredge up an emotional response (I had loved the book enough until then to really want to care). Some surprising turns were very interesting in theory, but just flashed past without the space for me to digest or ponder them, though this at least I can do now, after finishing. And after all the pining and longing looks, I wanted a correspondingly drawn-out, flangst-ridden conclusion between Aérine and Tor – although what we got instead has its merits, I felt let-down. I do think that Aérine is a great example of this genre of heroine – classical enough to be a comfort and a support, but with unique qualities that let her bring her own additions to the message of empowerment. The story too is gripping and intriguing, again with a balance of the familiar and the inventive, and some touches of humour and frankness which reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones. I suppose I just wish that McKinley had had a rigorous editor to whip the last quarter into shape, because the landing, after floating along in nostalgic joy, was a bit rude.

40. The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? by Deborah Cameron
“Popular assumptions about gender and communication--famously summed up in the title of the massively influential 1992 bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus--can have unforeseen but far-reaching consequences in many spheres of life, from attitudes to the phenomenon of "date-rape" to expectations of achievement at school, and potential discrimination in the work-place.
In this wide-ranging and thoroughly readable book, Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University and author of a number of leading texts in the field of language and gender studies, draws on over 30 years of scientific research to explain what we really know and to demonstrate how this is often very different from the accounts we are familiar with from recent popular writing.
Ambitious in scope and exceptionally accessible, The Myth of Mars and Venus tells it like it is: widely accepted attitudes from the past and from other cultures are at heart related to assumptions about language and the place of men and women in society; and there is as much similarity and variation within each gender as between men and women, often associated with social roles and relationships. The author goes on to consider the influence of Darwinian theories of natural selection and the notion that girls and boys are socialized during childhood into different ways of using language, before addressing problems of "miscommunication" surrounding, for example, sex and consent to sex, and women's relative lack of success in work and politics. Arguing that what linguistic differences there are between men and women are driven by the need to construct and project personal meaning and identity, Cameron concludes that we have an urgent need to think about gender in more complex ways than the prevailing myths and stereotypes allow.”

There’s so much intriguing and important information packed into this short, quick read that I think I’ll have to buy it, so that I can go back to it now and again to refresh my memory. It’s very well-written, clear and jargon-free, and also very funny – Cameron’s angry sarcasm is great. That anger is contagious, especially when she quite conclusively tears down the (court-upheld, arrrrrrrghh) idea that men frequently misunderstand women’s lack of sexual consent unless it’s a clear, “no.” We immediately understand that a “no” is coming if we’ve asked someone out for a drink or to a party or whatever, and they hesitate and start to say something like, “well...” No studies have found a difference between men’s and women’s understandings of ‘softened’ refusal, but for some reason men are being let off for sexual violence because of the myth that they can only understand “NOOO!” FUCK that bullshit. Cameron also brings up the question: why is it women’s responsibility to ensure that male-female communication is understood by all? Some of the most interesting findings that she discusses are those that point to differences in communication style being indirectly related to sex, i.e., communication styles are directly linked to the role that a person is playing (e.g. radio talk show hosts ask lots of facilitating questions whether they’re male or female), and if women tend to play a certain role more often, then the communication style used for that role can be mistakenly attributed to their femaleness rather than the job. This is so obvious now that she’s said it, but had never occurred to me! In common with The Beauty Myth, this book suggests that the sudden upsurge in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-like theories is due to our anxiety about our changing roles and society – we’re clinging to the outdated myths as they’re comforting, because we know our place in them and we don’t have to do any work to improve things if they’re already biologically ordained.
Mood: accomplished