....nope. Could not concentrate on a thing in January.
1. The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking - Oliver Burkeman. I've read a lot of Burkeman's columns in the Guardian over the years and frequently recommend this article to people with imposter syndrome. I have been interested in thinking about how I can take cognitive steps towards a different way of approaching the idea of happiness and wellbeing for some time but am turned off absolutely by what Burkeman calls "the cult of positive thinking". This book was refreshing, and reads easily in the small chapter chunks. I was struck by how much of this collected wisdom I've come to via other routes. Investigating Buddhism, after dating a Buddhist woman some years ago, introduced me to a lot of the ideas discussed in relation to that and Stoicism. In my academic work I've encountered a lot of the ideas about the chimeric notion of the self and how it comes down to nothing more than arbitrary divisions between 'self' and 'other' which can cause more pain than reassurance. And I had come by the idea of 'mori memento' via friends who've revived, and are interested in, Victorian-style celebration of the macabre, and by my own interest in the meaning and significance of Day of the Dead festivals. Finally, I encountered ideas about revaluing 'failure' via queer theory, and in particular a book called "the Queer Art of Failure" which at the time inspired me and this prompted me to reflect again on those ideas. Despite not necessarily encountering anything 'new' here, I did feel reassured that my continually emerging, eclectic view of the world is actually a fairly solid way to approach life and 'happiness'. That my reflection on the negative and facing down worst-case scenarios rather than tying myself in mental knots trying to avoid them, is actually a fair strategy. What it did highlight for me is that I need to work more on celebrating the things I have in the present, and valuing the things that give me pleasure, however fleetingly. I tried to indoctrinate this into myself some years ago when I had "seek beauty" tattooed on my wrist (something which, whenever I glance at, I do immediately look around and try to find something to be awed by). But I need to keep working at this.
2. Count Zero - William Gibson So one thing I like about Gibson is that his descriptions are both rich, and other wordly. You usually have to work hard to imagine what he is describing, but he gives you so much texture alongside entirely new words or terminology, you can do it - and it's enormously rewarding. However, being one of the early books, it just doesn't seem to quite be there. Much like Neuromancer I never felt like I fell into step with the narrative, descriptions felt impressionistic and abstract - I can see the components of what I like in the Bridge trilogy, for example, but it's just not come together yet. I spent easily two thirds of the book not quite being able to grasp what was going on and, somehow despite there not being definitely a lot more characters than usual, I couldn't keep track of who was who. In particular, I never really got a sense of personality or point of connection for Bobby, and Marly seemed to be really inconsistently characterised. Hard work, in the end.
3. Three Blind Mice and Other Stories - Agatha Christie I've wanted to read this for ages and got it for Christmas. Three Blind Mice is absolutely heart-in-mouth stuff. So evocative, so claustrophobic, and a lovely gay lad. The other stories were all nice enough but more like sketches than actual mysteries you could get emotionally or intellectually involved in. I liked the Miss Marple one with two sisters the best.
4. A Street Cat Named Bob - James Bowen I don't know what I was expecting really. I'm not sure I've ever read something which is ghostwritten/co-written with non-professional writer and this was really jarring and clearly heavily edited into shape. I think that as an author, you have one responsibility - and that's to be totally honest with your reader, good or bad, you have to offer it up. For what is probably a whole host of understandable reasons, it seems that James Bowen does not want to reveal his soul in this book, but frequently things felt carefully revised/edited versions of the truth, or there were gaps where there should have been disclosure. For that reason, I found it very dissatisfying. It's a nice enough story, but I knew everything I needed to from a Guardian article about 5 years ago. Plus side though - very quick to read.
5. Saga: Volume 7 - Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona K. Staples Glorious. I cried. The series really does go from strength to strength, and I think volume 7 is especially strong after some meandering in volume 6. I care so much about all the characters, and believe in them absolutely, fantastic storytelling, jaw dropping illustrations. Perfect.
6. Queer: A Graphic History - Meg John Barker and Julia Scheele I bought this back in September, before my viva, and then lost my nerve reading it in case it had something in it I'd missed/didn't know. In my viva, I discovered someone heavily involved in writing this book felt that I had a better grasp on some elements of queer theory than them, so I then felt like I might be disappointed with it...! In the end, it's a fair book. I found the level quite variable, I'd hesitate to recommend it to someone who isn't already familiar with literary theory/critical sexuality or feminist studies as I think there are a lot of dense ideas still not fully decompressed for a less prepped reader. I'll definitely recommend to queer-inclined cultural studies undergrads and activists with a fair academic foundation. Some of it was strong, some of the selections were obviously heavily informed by MJ's psychology background. I'd have liked more on Judith Butler - I know PhDs who still don't understand her work and this would have been a great opportunity to address that. Similarly, I think my way of explaining the heterosexual matrix and its relationship to heteronormativity is better (!) than offered here. There was, overall, a real pleasure in reading this for me and saying to myself, as I did, "I am an expert in this. I have a PhD in this. AND I'm still getting a guttural kick of joy at the scope and importance of these ideas". That's pretty cool.
7. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie - Anne Martinetti, Guillaume Lebeau, Alexandre Franc This was really disappointing. The challenge of any biography is to impose narrative and tell your reader something new. That 'new' is ideally an insight into the person, but at a minimum should be a coherent reporting of the facts. This managed neither. It's an impressionistic, snapshot of a series of apparently randomly chosen points in Christie's life. Half-heartedly structured around her disappearance in 1926 - although this drops in and out. I lacked an encyclopaedic knowledge of her works and films, which at times meant I had no idea what the snapshots were illustrating. Similarly, the decision to sometimes have her talking to her characters felt pointless, and having Tommy and Tuppence, the only characters who aged in real time, appear and claim to have been "waiting unchanged" was flat out inaccurate. Will be selling on.
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - JK Rowling I was at my parents house/cat-sitting and I was just getting nowhere with everything I tried to read so I went for something familiar, like a comfort blanket. I still love this one, think it may be my favourite of the series. It's got such a coherent narrative, the lovely Lupin, the wonderfully pained Sirius, and that lovely rhythm of a mystery novel. Very enjoyable.
9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - JK Rowling Every time I read this I convince myself that this time I'm not going to cry and it's not going to break me a bit. As usually, I got to the final third of the book and then couldn't put it down and found myself sobbing at 3am as Dumbledore delivers that speech about Cedric's integrity and kindness and how that is just wiped off the face of the planet because of evil. Heart. Broken.
10. The Truth - Terry Prachett I'd seen some quotes from this on Tumblr recently - all very on the nose in these 'post-truth' times and with the changing role of media and I resolved it would be my next re-read. I couldn't find it anywhere in my parents house (where all but a handful of my books live) so ended up rebuying. I'm sure I have read it before but it's so long ago it felt fresh. Sparkling dialogue and the wry observations of someone who has worked in journalism make it a joy. Although sometimes, perhaps, a little too close to the bone.
11. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar - Chris Packham When I heard, from Chris Packham on twitter, this was coming out last year I was really excited to read it. Then I lost my nerve. I love Chris Packham and have done since he was on the Really Wild Show - what if it was dreadful and dull and painfully trying to pull meaning out of an ordinary life (my most despised trope in memoirs and autobiographies)? In the end, it was an impulse buy in Waterstones and oh! I am so glad it was. I read the whole thing in three nights which I haven't done for ages. The open, fluid prose was initially jarring but worked perfectly to submerge you in the obsessive mind of the author and really hammers you with its insistence on the beauty of nature. I cried several times. I also really respected what a light touch there ultimately was with a story which is ultimately about [clinical] obsession and severe depression. Never self indulgent, never trying to be poignant, just relentlessly honest and open. I'm still thinking about it 3 days later.
12. The Descent of Man - Grayson Perry I absolutely loved the series he did on Channel 4 a couple of years ago about masculinity; I thought it was pitched just right and made so beautifully. I thought - think - it was important. Being loosely based on the outcomes of that show, this was generally good. As a scholar of gender studies, there's a lot I could pick at in this (especially interchangeable use of "female" for "woman" and "male" for "man", a long time pet peeve). Similarly, there's a lot of stuff which isn't quite thought through to it's conclusion that could have used a bit more thrashing out before the final draft. But the message is generally clear. And the manifesto for what men need in the future is excellent - and quite moving. It also prompted me to think about the way I perform masculinity as a shield, as armour, and how averse I have been to the (feminist) idea of "radical softness". I've passed it on to one man I know, and plan to send it to another after he's read it. I'm also still thinking about fear, vulnerability, and the way it cracks through for me.