I’ve never set goals for myself when it came to reading. I read what I read, when I want to, but it is safe to say that at any given moment I am in the middle of at least one book, often two or three. I do most of my reading during my commute, and admittedly have slowed down a bit in recent years. For 2015 I felt like making some kind of commitment, and was inspired to dedicate the year to women authors after seeing some twitter friends do the same in previous years. I primarily read women anyway, but saw this is as an opportunity to get into authors I’d always meant to read but never had, as well as expand on some whom I’d enjoyed once or twice but hadn’t explored more. I chose mostly fiction—both classic and contemporary—but threw in some memoirs and one film theory essay collection to round things out a bit. Several books were recommendations from friends, since my friends are awesome and have great taste. Most I liked a lot, only one was a real flop. Here are my loosely-organized thoughts on what I read.
Fantasy and Science-Fiction
I have always leaned on these genres for my reading, ever since I was a kid and gorged on the likes of KA Applegate, Edward Eager, and, a little later, Terry Brooks. That being said, there is still so much I’ve missed, especially when it comes to women in sci-fi, and so this year I got into new-to-me authors Connie Willis, Ann Leckie, and Lauren Beukes, while going deeper into Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Sharon Shinn. My favorite of this group is definitely Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a gorgeous, imaginative, heartbreaking look at an icy planet whose inhabitants have no defined gender, and the well-meaning human male ambassador who tries to make sense of their culture. Second favorite here would be Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, a delightful sci-fi romantic comedy written with the kind of droll British wit found in Terry Pratchett while incorporating a host of wacky time travel conceits. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy was a decidedly interesting read, with an intriguing premise and intricate world-building, but I think reading all three as one volume lessened the writing’s impact- it felt repetitive at times, and the pacing was off. It was probably the most inventive book I read this year, though, and Butler’s attention to detail and character complexities is remarkable.
Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City was the first book of 2015, before I even officially embarked on this project, and her creative and bizarre premise (a future where those who’ve killed have their “sin” manifest itself as a permanent animal companion while also developing certain magic powers) is fascinating. The overarching mystery plot was a little too convoluted and drawn-out at times but overall the book was too weird not to like. Among the final books I read were Lumberjanes Volumes I and II by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, a comic series about a Girl Scout-esque camp beset by mysterious mythological creatures. Its lighthearted writing style and compellingly strange mystery made for a quick, fun read. Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was officially the last book, about an AI on a revenge mission in an imperial society that doesn’t see gender. While it took me a little while to get into it, I was quite hooked by the end, and look forward to finishing the trilogy soon.
As a group, the fantasy/sci-fi novels I chose were exciting and thought-provoking, and for the most part progressive, with explorations of gender in Le Guin and Leckie, religion and class in Shinn and Willis, and protagonists of color in almost all of them. Le Guin’s Gifts was on the weaker end, but I feel like I’m just not into her young adult stuff as much as her more mature novels; and Sharon Shinn’s Angel-Seeker had some problematic cultural parallels, but damn it I do love her whole sexy angel sci-fi biblical dystopia thing.
I don’t read much nonfiction aside from art history/art criticism books, but I try to mindfully take breaks from the fantasy/sci-fi I always want to be reading. And I’m glad I did since these books were great! Three were memoirs: In her Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein reminisces about her childhood and musical career with Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney, writing with an easygoing, self-aware style that lends insight into the dynamics and development of one of my favorite rock groups. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home traces her complex relationship with her father, connecting her own experience of coming out to his life as a closeted homosexual. Her storytelling style is equally funny and heartbreaking, and I was moved to tears more than once.
Yayoi Kusama’s autobiography was my most prized find, as I’d been wanting to read it for years but hadn’t found a copy until recently. She is my favorite artist, and her life has been as fascinating as her body of work. Her book loosely traces her life from childhood in Japan during WWII, to her move to the US in the 60s with the sponsorship of Georgia O’Keeffe, to her involvement in the swinging experimental art scene of 1960s New York, to her return to her home country in the 70s, where she fell into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 90s. She is open about her struggle with mental illness and its inextricable link to her art. She devotes a whole section to her relationships (mostly platonic) with different artists of the time, including Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell. I love her poetic, emotional writing and how her idiosyncratic personality showed through even in translation. My main issue with the book is I could feel her holding back a lot of details, and I wanted to know more. Plus it skips over like 3 decades at the end.
The final nonfiction book I got into in 2015 was Men, Women, and Chain Saws by Carol Clover, a landmark critical text dealing with gender in horror. Though I didn’t always agree with her assessments, and the writing could be a bit dry, overall it’s such a fascinating and significant resource for any horror lover. Plus I got so many film recommendations out of it!
One of my specific goals with the reading-only-women thing was to get into some classic female authors I’d never read. And, since the first-ever novel was written by a woman, that seemed like a good place to start. I had an abridged copy of The Tale of Genji sitting around, and I gotta say, it was my least favorite book I read this year. I studied Japanese art and culture in college and grad school, and this Heian Period work is incredibly important in visual art and literature, but I think I am too removed from its context to really appreciate it. It’s riddled with references I didn’t understand, resulting in annotations as long as each chapter, but more importantly the main character is a terrible human being whose beauty seems to excuse all his actions, including adopting a young girl so he can raise her to be his wife because she reminds him of a woman he loves but can’t have. That is so gross! Everyone in this book is pretty sex-positive though, which is neat for something written in the eleventh century.
The two other classics I read were The Scarlet Pimpernel, a story I was familiar with from myriad stage/film adaptations, and Middlemarch, another story I knew from an adaptation (the BBC miniseries) but had been too intimidated to read due to its length. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun historical adventure but not especially remarkable, my main takeaway being that the entire plot is told from the point of view of female protagonist Marguerite, whereas every version of it I’ve ever seen adapting it splits the storytelling between her and the male lead, Percy. Despite its title, the book is actually a woman’s story and that was pretty cool to discover. Middlemarch is what I actually want to talk about. Because Middlemarch is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. George Eliot’s prose is so full and sincere and complex that I feel rude even trying to talk about it, because I do not have the words. It is simultaneously about everything and nothing, giving equal focus to the most significant moments and the smallest details of its character’s lives. Every single person who plays any role in her story is painted so lovingly, so that even the most unlikable characters are revealed to be layered, complicated, and sympathetic. Though it rounds out at about 900 pages, I found I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to forever be living within Eliot’s words, her thoughtful writing style equal parts comforting and gripping.
Besides Middlemarch and The Left Hand of Darkness, my favorite discovery of 2015 was probably Shirley Jackson. Sure I’d read “The Lottery” in high school, but I never knew much else about her work. Then I devoured We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House in a few sittings and suddenly she was my new favorite writer. Her work is weird and eerie and emotional, with an intimate, detail-driven style and a knack for saying a lot with a little. She wholeheartedly invites the reader to live inside the heads of mentally unsettled characters whose skewed perspectives reveal themselves gradually and subtly, and my only criticism is that her books are too short. Tied for favorite fiction find is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which I found for free in my workplace’s break room. I’d seen the film but didn’t remember it well, so the story of the unfortunately-named Gogol and his attempts to distance himself from his Indian immigrant parents felt new to me. Lahiri’s writing is gorgeous and heart-breaking, bringing me to tears on numerous occasions with its realism and honesty. It is episodic but fast-paced, with well-drawn characters and a cross-cultural focus that I found compelling as well as edifying.
I didn’t read too many comedic books in 2015, I’m realizing, but the main one I did was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, which could easily tide me over for the whole year. Written in diary format by lovable faux-sophisticate Lorelei Lee, it is an at-times scathing little satire featuring bizarre linguistic inventions and laugh-out-loud jokes on every page. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a nail-biter mystery-thriller about a fictional filmmaker and his mysterious missing daughter. The subject matter definitely appealed to me and I loved the cinematic myth-building that propelled the story, but the fact of the matter is I don’t do well with thrillers because I find them exhausting to read! Any book where things are happening all the time and no one ever gets a break and no one ever seems to eat dinner or get any sleep just make ME want to take a break. Which is why typically I only read one book like this a year.
A few books in this area came to my attention because of their artsy premises, namely The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. The former I liked a lot, it’s a bit gimmicky but I loved the story it told as it delved into the imagined creation of a famous illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The latter is a decent art crime novel, not particularly well-written but quick-moving, imaginative, and well-researched. It’s the kind of book people had recommended to me as an art historian, but that mostly just means I already knew a lot of what the author goes out of her way to expound. Some fun made-up (???) facts about Isabella Stewart Gardner though.
So there it is, all the books I read in 2015! Not an impressive number, it’s true, but I was aiming for quality over quantity (plus keep in mind that Middlemarch is like the longest book ever, after, I recently discovered the hard way, The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just started). I finished two series (Sharon Shinn’s Samaria and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series) and began two more (Anne Leckie’s Ancillary and Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series). I knocked out a few classics I’d been putting off and got into a few new authors. I read about fascinating men and women (and a few gender-neutral figures), real and imagined, super-powered and average, flawed and fantastic. I discovered some books that will definitely stay with me for a long time.