Jan 10, 2016

Belated Sunday Links

First of all, a big thank you to everyone who commented on or sent me messages regarding my last post. Ordinary human kindness is a genuine comfort. I’m back in the UK now, and I’m doing my best to endure January. Also, I’ve been back at work these past few days; this, too, has proved an unexpected source of comfort, and a good way to get my mind off things — though I do of course miss having vast expanses of time to myself. My 2016 began with a lot of reading: I caught up on some of my favourite comics (Saga, Captain Marvel, Ms Marvel); I made considerable headway into my comfort reading list; I got through my library stack; and I polished off some non-fiction. For the moment I don’t feel the drive to write about any of it, but that might change in due time.

What I do feel like, though, is telling about some of the online reading I’ve been doing, and how it ties into stuff I’ve been thinking about. So here it goes:
  • I seem to be slipping down the Hamilton rabbit hole — this surprises me a bit, because up until now I’ve had minimal exposure to musicals and know very little about them. I also have next to no context to help me make sense of Hamilton historically, and as a non-American I don’t necessarily feel the urge to correct that through reading (I’m sure it would be interesting, but to be honest there are other non-fiction topics I’d rather prioritise). I don’t think that’s an unusual experience among Hamilton fans, though, and it’s lovely to note how the music’s emotional resonance makes itself felt regardless, and how captivating its approach to storytelling is. My enthusiasm for Hamilton has been a very pleasant surprise: I like liking things, and, as I think I’ve explained before, I especially enjoy the communal joy of being excited about something lots of other people are excited about.

    All this to say that I enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s piece about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and how he came to write it.

  • I have a lot of feeling about The Wire, always and forever, so of course this animated tribute to the series did things to my heart.

  • A Month-by-Month Break Down of Music Industry Misogyny in 2015. Even though I don’t write a lot about it, music is every bit as important to me as reading, and up until recently I felt that the music world was perhaps a few steps behind the book world when it came to having open public conversations about pervasive misogyny and its effects. A lot of work remains to be done in every cultural arena, but it’s gratifying to see the unmistakable signs that things are changing.

  • Zaleski’s piece led me to this one, which I had an intense and complicated reaction to. I want to be cautious and clarify that when I say that a culture of reaction has a high human cost, I’m speaking for myself only, and even then, only some of the time. I’ve seen both sides: I’ve experienced moments when going on twitter and seeing everyone respond to some wrongheaded article or other is immensely comforting and healing — it breaks through isolation; it makes harm more bearable; it reminds us that we’re not alone; it builds solidarity; it keeps us sane. And as much as it feels like we’re inside an echo chamber sometimes, I genuinely believe that new people are being reached and exposed to the principles of equality in their many nuances and incarnations all the time. Our words are not being wasted. I trust that.

    However, there are also days (more days than not, to be honest) when the latest wrongheaded article makes me want to crawl under my bed rather than go on twitter and share what would at a better time have been a comforting, companionable eye-roll with my friends. It’s not that people are wrong to react; it’s that I can’t always withstand it. Some subjects are too painful or too personal; some days are just too hard. And although I’m a little better at dealing with these things than I used to be, in the past I’ve worried a lot about whether my need to be silent so I can take care of myself is indistinguishable from indifference or complicity from the outside, or even from the inside. One thing I still struggle with is how the choice to prioritise self-care often ends up isolating me, because I haven’t yet found many alternative modes of community participation.

    Anyway, I definitely don’t have a solution, and I wouldn’t ever presume to know the one right or healthy way to navigate any of this — different things work for different people, or even for the same person at different times. What I do know is that I share Adams’ need for “community restoration and regeneration”, as well as her concerns about big media platforms exploiting these dynamics because they know blatant wrongheadedness means reactions, which means clicks, which means money — but it also means exhaustion and loneliness and hurt.

  • Content filtering in UK public libraries. I have long since shared the concerns highlighted in this paper; it’s good to see them articulated so clearly and supported by such great research. I hope this is the first step towards change.

  • Tim Coates on the latest CIPFA data about UK public libraries.

  • When Teamwork Doesn’t Work for Women: Women get full credit, in terms of earning tenure, only when writing papers with other women. Writing one with a man has no impact on the female author, only the male.

  • I have not yet seen The Force Awakens, but I really enjoyed Daniel José Older’s piece about it. I feel this sense of possibility too, and it’s done me a world of good.

  • Why are there so few girls in children’s books?

  • On a more hopeful note, I’m so excited about the upcoming Ada Twist, Scientist.

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Jan 6, 2016

Cat, again

Mi, the survivor of the two cats I got in my early teens, barely made it to 2016. He was in apparent good health and acting like his usual self up until the evening when he refused his food; then he threw up and we took him to the vet. 36 hours later he died of renal failure, as so many elderly cats seem to.

He was smart, confident, communicative and affectionate. He was unfazed by most things — the opposite of his sibling in many ways. He was given to shows of temperament in the form of sharp teeth, but he became increasingly gentle as the years passed. He was a delight to be around. I took the photo above a little over a week ago, when I arrived at my parents’ for the second half of the holidays; I’m still here as I write these words, and just like that he’s gone.

This loss has hit me hard. Foolishly, I’m a little surprised at this. I don’t know if perhaps I half thought that losing my best cat friend would make me impervious to further losses, even though that’s not something I would ever have expected of anyone else. Losing a parent doesn’t prepare you for losing a beloved aunt; the death of a friend doesn’t prepare you for the death of another. Death diminishes always; something else crucial has been lost.

I could talk about how these two cats were living links to difficult but formative years, which have now been severed, but in the end I really don’t want symbol to erase the reality of a living creature who loved me and who I loved in return, and who is gone abruptly. Just five days ago I held him at midnight as we entered the New Year, and I thought with wonder and gratitude that I’d done the same as a teenager, when we entered the year 2000. Mi would have been 17 this year — his was not a short life, and I know it was a happy one. For the moment, though, that thought offers limited comfort. One thing I’m glad of is that I was here when this happened. In a way that makes it harder, to have suffered a sudden loss after a week of reading on a bean bag with him curled up beside me — it makes death far less abstract. But turning away from that would feel like a refusal of everything that tied us to one another. I’m grateful we got this time together, even if the result is a more vivid and immediate sort of grief.

It was only a few days ago that I was writing about hope; about not thinking of the passing of time only in terms of what it takes away from us. I was having a hard time when I wrote that post, just like I did in general this holiday season. But I had drafted it in my head over the weeks and I wanted to post it because generally I had felt that to be true, especially in the second half of 2015. It was true on average, you could say; it was a truth I chose to turn to with deliberation. I don’t really believe in tempting fate, and I believe even less in making sense of losses solely in light of what we learn from them. I understand, and often feel, the narrative impetus to do so, but my hope didn’t need testing to become more real. If I believe in anything, I guess I believe in sitting with the contradiction. This happened, and I could have done without the blow, and there’s nothing to be done about that. I’m left to reconcile the different things I know about the world — a labour that’s necessary, if not exactly wanted. I find my mind returning to the book I read on my flight here, A Ring of Endless Light: to the opening scene where Vicky Austin wonders at her grandfather’s genuinely joyful “hallelujah” at the of a funeral address just as filled with genuine grief. It’s true, all of it, and we have to live with it somehow.

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Jan 4, 2016

January is for comfort reading

And so here we are again, back at that dreary time of the year when, for some of us northern hemisphere residents, the cold dark months seem to stretch on indefinitely without even the promise of Christmas break to get us through them. I struggle a lot with January and February, and one thing that’s helped considerably over the past few years is devoting this time to comforting reading — mostly in the form of books I’ve long since been looking forward to but keep putting aside for one reason or another. I’m especially in need of it this January, as sadly my 2016 started with some bad news I really could have done without.

It’s time, then, for books I’m fairly sure I’m going to love. Some of you might recognise this project as Long-Waited Reads Month, which is what I used to call it back in the days when it was easier for me to organise things. My co-host Iris will likely have more to say about it in the near future, but for now: please feel free to read along with us if you so wish, to combine it with Andi’s Read My Own Damn Books, to adapt it to your own purposes, or what have you. I might not currently be able to offer more in terms of structure than “I’m doing this thing; come do it with me”, but I do know that reading projects are usually more fun with company.

“But”, you ask, “what will you read?”. Here are the current contenders — this list is no more than the first few books that came into my head when I wondered what I felt like reading right now. On this occasion I shall refrain from photographing them in what passes for an aesthetically pleasing pile, as most of my books and I are still in different countries (not that I’m complaining, since that means I have a few days to enjoy before I have to go back to work):
  • The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
  • Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
  • A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee
  • Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Lila by by Marilynne Robinson
Who knows, though; I might end up reading something altogether different. What do you read when you need comforting? Also, I have leftover Christmas gift cards that still need spending, so please feel free to tell me which books to buy.

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Dec 31, 2015

Happy New Year!

Photo Credit

It’s with great pleasure that I bring you, for the first time in a while, something other than a melancholy end of the year post. We’re social creatures and also creatures of ritual, so a period when everyone seems to be thinking about the nature of time is conductive to reflection. For the past few years, New Year’s Eve found me thinking about how easy it is to equate time with inevitable loss, and it also found me dreading the months ahead and their unavoidable blows. While it hasn’t ceased to be true that time takes things away from us, there are some gains along the way, too — there are possibilities that go beyond our imagining; there’s a lot to see and do and love in the world. I guess this is what they call hope.

Happy New Year, friends! Thank you so very much for reading, and my sincere wishes for a 2016 full hope and love and joy and good stories for each and every one of you. I wish you well.

I’ll leave you with a song that’s meant a lot to me this year, and whose lines “But stand brave, life-liver/bleeding out your days/in the river/of time” seem particularly relevant right now.

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Dec 30, 2015

2015: The Year in Review

Photo credit

The year is nearly over, which means it’s time for another one of these posts — my ninth since starting this blog. 2015 was a very good reading year: I read fewer books than in previous years, and didn’t read at all for the longest stretch of time in probably a decade, but when the time came to narrow down my favourites I struggled more than I recall doing in recent years. I ended up with a longer list than usual (twenty fiction titles and ten non-fiction) just because I couldn’t bear to leave any of them out; if that’s not a sign of a great reading year then I don’t know what is.

2015 was a year of comics: I read a lot of them, discovered that I do enjoy superhero stories after all, and generally felt more excited about the medium than I had in ages. Books like Jem and the Holograms or Lumberjanes made me feel the way Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries did last year — they were restful and joyful and fun in ways that are interesting to examine, mostly because they take girls’ humanity for granted. I don’t want to say this makes them more than fun because I genuinely believe that fun is valuable in its own right, and that we should treasure whatever brings us joy. However, I do want to highlight how grateful I am for the possibility of finding uncomplicated enjoyment in stories — something that has always been more challenging than it should be if you’re anything other than a straight white man. The world of comics seems rife with this possibility at the moment. Also, so many of these were kind stories; stories that put forward fantasies of conflict-resolution that deviate from the default of recurring to violence (which has always been a fantasy we don’t necessarily recognise as such). Doreen Green’s approach with Galactus in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, for example, is a thing of beauty, and does something that has become increasingly important to me.

In 2015 I also read a lot of non-fiction that was absolutely crucial to my well-being. I read 22 non-fiction books — more than in 2014 but less than in previous years — and yet I couldn’t list fewer than ten favourites because all these books were important to me. If any theme emerges, I suppose it’s something like “gathering intellectual ammunition to fight the psychological onslaught of free-market capitalism”. I worry wording it like this sounds like posturing, but this is something I felt deeply all year, and which has genuinely affected my sense of myself and of my place in the world on a day to day basis. 2015 brought me hope in both a personal and political sense, and the words of these writers were a big part of the reason why.

Here’s my list — as before, they’re books I read this year and not necessarily just 2015 releases:


  • Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead: “I’d go so far as to describe Goodbye Stranger as the Gaudy Night of friendship books: it doesn’t just present functional, emotionally satisfying relationship as ready-made, but looks at them closely and examines the everyday decisions, the small acts of compassion, support and forgiveness, and the emotional labour that go into keeping them that way. I didn’t quite realise how much I needed a story like this in my life until I read it.”

  • Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman: A lot of my fellow Seraphina fans were disappointed in the follow-up, but to me it was the exact right story at the right time. I couldn’t have loved it more: “Reading Shadow Scale gave me the same feeling as reading The Goblin Emperor did last year: both are novels that examine complex and pertinent political ideas via incredibly rich secondary worlds, both have real darkness in them but nevertheless resist cynicism, and both were reminders of why I love genre. As the quote I opened with indicates, Shadow Scale is very much concerned with shifting categories, and with what resisting complex and flexible definitions of what it means to belong to a group can do to both individuals and societies.”

  • Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: “Of course, the heartbreaking thing is that in the context of this novel, in the context of our world, and in the context of Mary’s life — she had a father who quizzed her daily on a folder full of newspaper clippings filled with violence against women — trust is almost too much to ask. Fear is an entirely appropriate response to a hostile environment, and this story never frames it as anything but. Being able to surmount that to the best of your ability, especially in a world filled with endemic gendered violence, is moving and miraculous. In this sense, Mr Fox does something I love, and which some of my all-time favourite novels do (from To the Lighthouse to The Brides of Rollrock Island): it look at how stereotypical gender roles can be an obstacle to real intimacy between people. Developing equal, trusting, and satisfying relationships requires work for many reasons, one of which is that it often requires you to undo layers upon layers of narratives that naturalise violence and fear.”

  • The Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton: “[This is] a novel of ideas where the characters feel like real people, and it’s one that’s very much concerned with the gap between idealism and the practical implications of living on a day to day basis with what seem to some like just principles in the abstract. However, it’s neither a cynical work nor one that’s defeatist or dismissive of the impulse to build a fairer society. The Just City turns out to be a horrifying place on many levels, but the novel addresses this with a willingness to ask honest and tough questions about what people who for the most part genuinely want to create a better world can get wrong, rather than by scoffing at the impulse altogether.”

  • About a Girl by Sarah McCarry: “In About a Girl, Tally loves Maddie, and that simple fact raises the amazing possibility that perhaps girls can be loved without always being required to give in or excise part of themselves. This is harder than it should be in a world that is what it is, but we desperately need stories that remind us that it can be done: that we get to be human and prickly and messy too without moving beyond the reach of emotional ties. Between this and Nimona, I declare 2015 an excellent year for stories about monstrous girls. May there be many more.”

  • Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson: “The world of Lumberjanes takes it for granted that girls and women are human beings, with all the complications and infinite variations inherent to that — a fact that shouldn’t be worthy of note, but still is in our cultural landscape. Again, the power in numbers principle applies: in a series with such a large cast of girls and woman, none of them has to carry the weight of representing their gender as a whole. Whatever they like, whatever they do, whatever they excel or fail at is allowed to belong to them alone.”

  • Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo:Mr Loverman does nuance right — it never uses it as a free pass, but it presents it as another layer that adds to our understanding. Barry, like so many human beings, contains multitudes, and this is a novel that does justice to them all. By the end I genuinely wished him well, and I appreciated that the story didn’t require me to minimise the hurt he caused others to do that. That’s the thing about equal rights: they’re not rewards for being an unfailingly good person but basic points of deparure. I never stopped wanting a safe world for Barry, even if I couldn’t always like him.”

  • The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett: “Tiffany Aching knows she has some big shoes to fill, and through the novel we watch her find her way with the help of the mentorship of remarkable women — of a whole community of women. Yet, crucially, it’s her own way that she has to find, rather than a way to emulate the two people who shaped her the most: Granny Aching and Granny Weatherwax. There isn’t a single path to living a good life, and here we watch Tiffany move closer to figuring out what her particular path might be. The Shepherd’s Crown is very much a reflection on what it means to live fully, which eventually settles on “leaving the world a little better than you found it”. It moves me to think it was written by a man who knew he was dying — I hope he knew that he did leave the world better, in so many ways.”

  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness:The Rest of Us Just Live Here is about the richness and complexity of the narratives happening at the edges of what we’re conditioned to give our attention to, be it high-stakes reality-collapsing scenarios or simply our own troubles and concerns. Everyone, we’re reminded, is the hero of their own story. The novel’s structure highlights this very noticeably, but there’s more to it than form: there’s the story Mike doesn’t see, for example, because he’s so wrapped up in his own. This oversight is all too human, but it has consequences for one of the most important emotional ties in his life. I’d say this alignment between theme and structure is cleverly done, but I worry that makes the novel sound sterile when in reality it is full of heart.”

  • Fans of the Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa: “I found Fans of the Impossible Life very moving in ways I’m not sure I can properly articulate. Kate Scelsa’s writing is astonishing, and she fills her novel with hope: with the possibility of finding your way back to love across layers of hurt that do their best to isolate you. The hope and love which form the heart of this book are not facile — human connections are not shown to be an instant magical cure for whatever complications hit us. Still, there’s a power to them that makes them worth fighting for, and there’s nothing cheap about the solace that love and community can bring. I wanted that so much for Mira, Jeremy and Sebby, and the novel left me feeling that perhaps it was possible after all.”

  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: This book made for perfect comfort reading: it introduces us to a story and a world that were instantly familiar and yet also completely new in exciting ways, and to a cast of characters you root for from the very start, and whose every moment in each other’s company is a delight. Carry On is Rowell’s take on Simon and Baz’s story, which we were first introduced to in Fangirl, and it’s everything I wanted it to be and more: a romance, a novel full of friendship and humour and care, and a chosen one narrative that deftly interrogates its own premises. I loved it.

  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson:I’ll Give You the Sun is also about creativity and how it helps us construct meaning, about how our life stories contain infinite angles and accommodate multiple truths, and about how art can be a way to express them. I particularly appreciated that the twins’ mother was never demonised, even though that’s often the case for women who leave their marriages. She was a person with her own life, she loved her children, and she fell in love with another man. Much like One Crazy Summer, I’ll Give You the Sun gives her space to be a human being as well as a mother, it gives Noah and Jude space to be upset, and it acknowledges that situations where people get hurt don’t require a bad guy. Hearts are fragile and get bruised even when people do their best, but patience and love get us through the rough patches.”

  • Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia: “Rita Williams-Garcia’s three Gaither sisters novels are without doubt among the best historical children’s fiction I have ever read. Together they paint a thoughtful, generous and nuanced portrait of the years around the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a smart, complicated girl.”

  • Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick et al: I’m cheating slightly here, as I read several of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel trade paperbacks this year and can’t really pick a favourite, but I trust that you’ll forgive me: “You see, Carol is my favourite (though it’s possible that this actually means Kelly Sue DeConnick is my favourite). The character moments in her stories are the most satisfying I’ve come across so far. I love the scene in Down when Carol is arranging to take her friend Tracy (who we know has cancer) to the doctor, but when she gets there we realise Tracy came along because Carol herself was asked to bring a family member for support. I love her relationship with Kit Renner, her six-year-old neighbour and Captain Marvel’s biggest fan. I love that one of her priorities is taking her cat Chewie for her annual check-up — and when everything explodes, to keep her safe. I love that there are so many women in Carol’s stories, and that her relationships with them matter.”

  • The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge: “I’d say that The Lie Tree is not like Hardinge’s other novels, but then again her other novels are not necessarily much like one another either — her versatility is one of the things I love about her work. Still, what struck me about The Lie Tree was first of all the fact that the fantastic elements are so subtle. They’re present, but this novel belongs more to a Victorian-Gothic-with-clear-social-subtext tradition which put me in mind of the likes of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Secondly, of all of Hardinge’s novels to date it’s probably the one most overtly engaged with feminism, which needless to say I loved. The sensibility was always there in her work, but The Lie Tree tackles sexism head on.”

  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson: “This is only one of the many ways in which Noelle Stevenson subverts dominant narratives in Nimona: the most central ones have of course to do with Nimona herself. First of all, there’s the fact that this story is very much about her. She introduces herself to Ballister as his sidekick, but, well, there’s an important hint in the comic’s title. The two go on to develop a respectful collaboration that doesn’t erase her, and as the story progresses we learn more about Nimona’s past. Although her relationship with Ballister is central to the story, Nimona’s life is never portrayed only in terms of how it affects him. His care for her gives heart to the narrative, but readers aren’t invited to emphatize with Nimona solely in light of this care.”

  • The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow: This book had all the thoughtfulness and depth of feeling I’ve come to expect from Erin Bow. The Scorpion Rules is a science fiction story about a group of teenagers who have been held hostage by a powerful AI named Tallis all their lives, and who know they’ll die if their respective nations ever enter a war. It’s also a story about resisting abstraction and its dehumanising power: a lot of The Scorpion Rules is difficult to read, because it explores the physicality of torture in a way few books do; however, Greta’s pain isn’t presented as grit for its own sake. Instead, it’s a reminder that carelessness and cruelty and death hurt real human beings. Talis forgets; the story doesn't allow the reader to. Add to this the lovely, complex relationships between Greta and Da-Xia and Elián and of course I fell hard for this novel.

  • A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle: The last novel I finished in 2015 couldn’t have been more perfect. Like I’ll Give You the Sun, it’s about love and death and making sense of life in the face of its transience; it’s a deeply felt novel that tackles the questions it asks with an openness that immediately won me over. Vicky Austin, the fifteen-year-old narrator, considers grief and joy and despair over the course of a summer when her beloved grandfather is dying of leukaemia, and when death seems to be everywhere she looks. I’ve loved A Wrinkle in Time for a long time and I really enjoyed The Young Unicorns when I read it last year, but A Ring of Endless Light is the first book that made me feel that L’Engle could become one of my favourite authors.

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik: “Lastly, I want to say that I think Liz Bourke put it perfectly by saying that Uprooted is “a generous book, and a kind one” that “holds out hope both to its characters and to its readers even in its moments of horror”. Perhaps my recent craving for hope in my fiction and non-fiction leads me to see everywhere I look, but this seems to me another story that hints at a world where we can survive by looking after each other.”

  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby:Bone Gap was too vivid a reminder of experiences I haven’t felt ready to discuss in public, which made it hard to read at times — but this is also what makes it an amazing novel. It tackles sexism and objectification and rape culture head on, and it illuminates the continuity of abuse. Major incidents like Roza’s abduction and everyday episodes of harassment like the ones a younger Roza or Petey experience exist as part of a continuum, of a cycle where the acceptability of the latter makes the former all the more likely. There are layers and layers of assumptions and normalised cultural mores that make it possible for a man to believe that he can “make” Roza love him.”


  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: This book meant a lot to me this year — it helped me articulate several thoughts about what I value in art, and about gender, and what I put out there in the world. It helped me make sense of the whole business of being a person alive in the world, which is one of the best things a piece of writing can do. “Jamison is interested in the limits of empathy as well as in its possibilities, and this is a central part of what gives her essays their depth. How do you continue to attempt understanding, even when you know that most of the time the end result will be imperfect at best, and that real human beings have been and continued to be hurt by faulty attempts? How do you make sure you truly hear others over the sound of your own anxiety about this? How do you resist dehumanisation, when everything about the world we live in encourages it?”

  • Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit: Another book that shaped my year profoundly: I read it in January and it kind of set the tone for the months to come. 2015 was very much about trying to put aside a sense of entrapment and hopelessness that is as personal as it is political, and I don’t think I could have done it without Solnit’s words. “[This book] is about how to keep despair at bay when the world seems to be changing at a much slower pace than we’d like; about the vulnerability inherent to hope and to opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure; about how not to lose heart when the things you pour your time and energy into don’t seem to amount to anything much. In short, it’s about questions close to my heart, which made it a necessary book for me at this point in time. It gave me hope in the way only books that are frank about how dire things can be ever really manage, because it feels like that hope is coming from an honest place.”

  • You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn: “I enjoy reading Zinn because he gives me hope. And crucially, the kind of hope his writing conveys is one that I can get behind. It’s not based on a Pollyannaish approach to the world, but on a clear-sighted understanding of how unfair it is, how rigged in favour of the few and against the many, how deeply out of balance. And yet, even as he acknowledges this, Zinn reminds us that we’re not powerless, even if thousands of factors conspire to make us feel that way. The hope he offers is not passive — it’s not about keeping our chins up and smiling through hard times until things just happen to get better, but about dragging the world towards greater equality in whatever ways are available to us.”

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Angela Davis says that “one obvious element of racism consists of the learned capacity to ignore individuality at the expense of the generic”, and this is an idea Between the World and Me returns to time and again. In his letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America, Coates reminds us that the people hurt by racism are individuals; that the lives destroyed by slavery where each and every one of them irreplaceable; that nothing in the world could ever erase that enormous human cost; that this seems to be beyond imagining but we owe it to ourselves and to each other to imagine it. It’s a seemingly obvious thought, but it’s one the world has looked away from for too long. Everything about Between the World and Me is irreducibly human — from the story of Prince Jones, a young man Coates befriended in college and who was shot by the police, to the moment when a white woman pushes his four-year-old son as they’re leaving a screening of Howl’s Moving Castle and he realises his protective anger could endanger them both — and that’s what gives it its power.

  • Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness by Miya Tokumitsu: More on this one in January, probably, because I’m still thinking about it. Tokumitsu’s sharp, smart book is about “our myths about what motivates us to work”, and how they encourage people into a psychological place that just so happens to serve the interests of businesses, to discourage any sort of organised struggle for labour rights, and to leave workers vulnerable to exploitation. “When passion becomes the socially accepted motivation for working, talk of wages or reasonable scheduling becomes crass.” Tokumitsu exposes the pitfalls and disingenuousness of the “do what you love” ethos, and argues that we can and should be aiming for a world where human beings are allowed an identity beyond their usefulness to the labour market, and where work-life balance is not a thing of the past.

  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande:Being Mortal is a questioning book. It’s also both compassionate and intellectually humble: for all his specialised knowledge and practical experience, Gawande never writes as someone who has all the answers and can bypass people’s will to determine what’s best for them — in fact, this is a model he rejects outright. On the other hand, he also has complicated feelings about the model modern doctors tend to follow instead: one where they give patients information about alternative options and then leave them to make a decision. Information is crucial and it’s something patients and their families should have, but processing it in a highly emotionally charged situation is not always something human beings are able to do. This means they need openness and support, but this is difficult for doctors to provide when they don’t necessarily know how to confront mortality themselves.”

  • 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang: “Chang challenges the narrative of inevitability and destroys the illusion of “neutrality” about the contemporary world. Some of the ideas he addresses include the myth of the meritocracy (“We should reject the myth that we all get paid according to our individual worth, if we are to build a truly just society”), trickle-down economics, the “capitalist folklore” of the lone genius entrepreneur (“Even exceptional individuals like Edison and Gates have become what they have only because they were supported by a whole host of collective institutions”), and — perhaps my favourite section — the idea that material self-gain is the only reliable human motivator.”

  • Becoming Unbecoming by Una:Becoming Unbecoming is written with sensitivity, compassion, and insight. Una’s greatest strength is in joining the dots between the personal and the political: she makes links between systemic issues and individual experiences in a way that is both touchingly human and crucial to a political understanding of violence against women. I was particularly moved by the panel where Una explains how much lonelier and more hurtful her teenage years were because the feminist boom of the 70s didn’t reach her. “Becoming a woman”, she says, “is hard work made harder without a little f word.” Although my understanding of the kind of trauma Una describes is imperfect at best, the sentiment rang familiar all the same. So many of my teenage experiences would have been infinitely easier to navigate if only I had known that they were part of a pattern that stretches throughout history.”

  • The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu:The Body Economic was difficult to read. It’s a very useful book in the same way as Ha-Joon Chang’s, but it leaves no room for the distance of abstraction: it’s a constant reminder of what austerity means and what it costs. While there’s comfort to be found in the fact that history provides useful lessons, and in the knowledge that as the evidence mounts, more and more people will add their voice to the chorus demanding that we change course, the fact remains that in the past few years we have seen countless entirely avoidable deaths. There have been so many irreversible losses, so many people who paid with their lives, and even if the world were to start changing tomorrow nothing would bring them back.”

  • The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues by Angela Davis: I’d never read Angela Davis until I picked up this collection of essays and speeches, and when I put it down I was in awe. The Meaning of Freedom tackles themes such as race inequality in the criminal justice system, justice for lgbtq communities, neoliberalism, economic justice, democracy and social change, and much more. Davis is one of the most impressive structural thinkers I’ve ever come across, pointing out the links between different forms of injustice and always going for solutions that don’t leave anyone behind. I know I’ll be reading a lot more of her work in 2016.

    Honourable mentions: Greenglass House, The Darkest Part of the Forest, Rat Queens, The Crossover, Get in Trouble, The People in the Trees, Binny in Secret, Persona, Jem and the Holograms, Of Sorrow and Such, Deep Secret, The Lola Quartet, Sorcerer to the Crown, Bitch Planet, Phoebe and her Unicorn, Infandous, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.


    As per usual, I’ll start with a disclaimer about my stats: my reading spreadsheet fills me with nerdy joy, and over the years it has proved a very useful tool when it comes to making sure my reading is taking me where I want it to take me, and correcting my course when it turns out it’s not. There’s nothing like instant feedback to encourage deliberation. I’m less thrilled about the fact that numbers seem to inevitably open the door to comparisons, though: reading is not a competitive sport, and the only numbers I measure myself up against are my own from previous years. This isn’t so I can beat any sort of previous reading record, but because I’m interested in how the pattern of my reading fluctuates over time and is influenced by the circumstances of my life.

    As I put it previously, “I absolutely don’t buy into the idea that numbers say anything at all about how committed a reader you are, or about your other hobbies, or the state of your social life. If you enjoy reading, you’re a reader. There’s no secret club you’re initiated into once you cross a certain numeric threshold, and there’s no magic balance that makes your reading healthy as opposed to dangerously reclusive. All this to say: numbers are fun, but only if we don’t take them more seriously than they merit.”

    Here they go — as always, the categories don’t add up to 100% because several of them overlap:

    Total books read: 150 (9% down from last year, which is understandable considering there was a period of five weeks during which I didn’t read a single page. Not that I’m complaining — I loved those five weeks.)
    Novels: 69 (46%)
    Short Story Collections and Anthologies: 3 (2%)
    Comics aka Graphic Novels: 59 (39%)
    Non-Fiction: 22 (15%)
    Poetry: 1 (0.3%)
    By Women: 103 (69% — I’ll be fine with this for as long as the world continues not to be a level playing field.)
    By Men: 34 (23%)
    By Men and Women: 13 (8%)
    By People of Colour: 46 (31% — Better than in previous years, still room for improvement.)
    By lgbtq authors: 20 (13% — Likewise.)
    By new to me authors (fiction only): 25 (19%)
    From my TBR pile: 45 (30%)
    E-books: 28 (19%)
    Library Books: 40 (27%)
    New Releases: 64 (43%)
    Favourite writers discovered this year: Jandy Nelson, Noelle Stevenson, and Leslie Jamison.
    Least favourite book of the year: Probably The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.
    Best reading month: March (19 books)
    Worst reading month: October (5 books)

    What about you? What was your reading year like?
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